The Question for the Future of VR: What is 3D Audio?

If someone asked you the question of what Virtual Reality (VR) was, you would probably say “its the thing with the headset and I’ve seen youtube videos of people freaking out while wearing them.” That’s not a bad description. Now, what if someone asked you what 3D Audio was? You probably wouldn’t have an answer. That’s ok, most people I’ve asked don’t know either. Fear not, I’ve got the answer and the explanation.

3D Audio is audio that’s recorded the same way we hear. When you listen to 3D audio with headphones on, it trick’s your brain into thinking you’re in another place.

3D Audio vs. Stereo Audio

It’s important to note that 3D Audio is different then stereo audio. Stereo audio is how we listen to most music, TV, and radio. The sounds are balanced and nothing is too loud or too low. 3D Audio builds an environment around us by taking advantage of the highs and lows. Our brain interprets these sounds and allows us to perceive distance and direction, just as we do in the real world.

Types of 3D Audio

There are a couple of different types of 3D Audio including 360 Sound and Ambisonics. The type we’ll talk about today is binaural audio. Binaural is when you record audio using equipment that resembles a human head with 2 microphones where the ears would be. In recording sound this way we can capture height and depth information that allows our brain to interpret the environment as if we were actually there. The feeling of immersiveness becomes stronger when the person closes their eyes and lets the audio take over.

3D Soundscapes

There are lots of different soundscapes that I record for Travelear and each gives the listener a range of feelings. Nature soundscapes like exploring an animals natural habitat can produce a thrill because it is a rare experience to be so close to an elephant seal (see “Elephant Seal Beach” on the Travelear app). Another feeling is anxiety and stress, but also excitement. The sound of a swarm of bees aggressively swarming around your head can produce these feelings (see “BEES!”).

Other emotions like memory triggers and nostalgia also happen when listeners experience a soundscape from a city. The “Times Square” soundscape always triggers the smell of New York City and the feeling of cold from when I stood in the middle of the sidewalk in winter.

3D Audio and the future of Virtual Reality

No one will doubt that virtual reality (VR) is cool but the experiences I’ve had tend to be a little underwhelming because the audio is lacking. I know often times there is an overemphasis on video and not enough time or budget left to audio.

There is a long way to go with VR content and I believe we are just starting. I like to say now is the Wild West for VR because of so many companies entering the market which is great because I believe there is a solid future in it.

My hope is that content creators realize the importance of audio. Everything I wrote above contributes to the grand reason why quality audio matters just as much as quality video. Video allows us to witness what is being presented to us, audio let’s us experience it. 

I’ve been studying and experimenting with 3D Audio for a couple years now and it’s very exciting to see how fast its progressing. There’s a lot more to talk about as we venture into this new territory of immersiveness technologies so stay tuned!

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