Spatial audio, a key component of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (VR/AR/MR) headsets, enhances immersion with hyperrealistic, multidirectional sound, leading to greater real-time responses, higher training outcomes, and greater depth of gaming experiences.
Several key companies have begun exploring the addition of spatial audio with third-party solutions compatible with leading headset manufacturers, expanding freedom of choice for enthusiasts.
For our XR Today round table, we are pleased to welcome:
- Ben Weekes, Senior Architect & Principal Software Engineer, Agora
- Raghu Bathina, CEO and Co-Founder, Conquest VR
Conquest VR is a spatial audio headset manufacturer whose solution integrates with Meta Quest, HTC VIVE, Pico Interactive, and Varjo headsets.
Which demographics are likely to adopt spatial audio? Why is it key to building top immersive experiences?
Ben Weekes: Adopting spatial audio should be seen more as a way to make the Metaverse feel more immersive rather than being an individual technology to adopt on its own. That being said, Agora recently released data that found nearly half of Gen Z consumers have never even heard of spatial audio.
Especially for this younger generation growing up on digital, spatial audio could be seen as an obvious part of digital interactions, like being in an open-world game and communicating with those directly within their vicinity. Contrary, people may need to address the lack of education in the market.
Spatial audio is key for building immersive experiences as it can make or break something feeling as ‘real’ as it can. We see these Metaverse concepts of sitting in a virtual conference room where everyone is wearing a VR headset, but if the audio is static and centered, it won’t feel like you’re sitting in a room with others. With spatial audio, people will turn their heads to listen and give attention to others — this is where the realism of this technology really shines.
Raghu Bathina: A good percentage of the 40.9 million hardcore gamers in this country and most VR users, a majority of whom are between the ages of 18 and 34.
Audio is 50 percent of the experience, paraphrasing George Lucas. Non-spatialized audio puts the sound in the center of your head and stereo puts the sound in just your left and right ears.
Spatialized audio puts the sound all around you, providing a more believable experience and increasing the sense of presence and immersion. We’ve written a white paper on the impact of realistic audio on gameplay.
The paper shows how spatial audio can improve task performance, including measuring subjects’ accuracy in navigational tasks or their ability to identify objects that appear in spaces around them. Spatial audio greatly improved performance compared to other sound types, findings show.
Are there sufficient consumer and enterprise hardware options to support the spatial audio market, or is the technology still in its infancy?
Ben Weekes: VR headsets, being one of the main ways pushed to experience spatial audio at the moment, have been around for some time now. However, we’ve yet to see this hardware adopted widely.
The technology is there, but expensive prices and limited experiences currently used with the VR headset are barriers to adoption. As the Metaverse and VR games continue to advance in development, we’ll see supply and demand for the hardware meet in an even spot.
Raghu Bathina: In VR, there are headsets with speakers built into the head-mounted display (HMD) harness. These provide a taste of spatial audio but often lack richness and bass. However, high-quality headphones are available as add-ons to support the spatial audio requirement for these devices. Headsets with dedicated on-ear or off-ear headphones can also support spatial audio well.
Good spatial audio starts with the developers. There are both free and commercial audio spatializers available to them to create immersive sound environments. There are also courses in immersive audio that teach how to use these spatializers. Because taking advantage of these resources requires extra effort, and because audio is sometimes added hastily due to a lopsided focus on visuals with no budget left for audio, properly applied spatial audio is not found in most games.
How can spatial audio assist people in education, training, and upskilling?
Ben Weekes: Virtual workspaces or virtual education will have difficulty finding mainstream success without a sense of immersion. Spatial audio is the main component of accomplishing those human-centric experiences.
It’s a worthy argument now that people video conferencing into a full conference room or classroom will miss out on the typical social interactions that come with each scenario, and even lose the opportunity to fairly contribute the same way their in-person counterparts do.
By having a reference point and a specific spot to sit in a virtual space, it levels the playing field and spatial audio allows these experiences to feel like realistic interactions.
Raghu Bathina: For training and upskilling, spatial audio is crucial. We live in a 3D world, so how can you adequately train an employee working in a 3D world without 3D sound? People train faster, retain more knowledge, and learn skills more quickly with spatialized audio.
Gamers have a competitive edge with immersive audio by finding friends and foes more quickly. Patients benefit from immersive audio because the more engaging a VR medical experience is, the more effective the VR intervention is. Companies also have a lot to gain from immersive audio that is well-designed and delivered because it can directly impact retention rates and trainee performance.
How do new headsets like the Quest Pro and Pico 4 contribute to the rapid adoption of spatial audio tech?
Ben Weekes: Spatial audio can already be accessed through many traditional applications. But the Metaverse and VR spaces are where the technology will be used in the most interesting ways. These new VR headsets are a continued innovation of a product line that has existed for a period of time now, and as new features continue to get added to VR headsets, the more consumers will adopt.
With these advancements, we will also see different spatial audio technologies come to fruition so businesses and consumers alike can maximize the potential of VR headsets. Whether it be work, education, or gaming, spatial audio and VR headsets will feed off of other technological innovations, and the end result will be an improved product for the end user.
Raghu Bathina: In and of themselves, as companies continue to embed speakers in the support straps, headsets and HMDs will face significant limitations in design and audio output.
Spatial audio is a prerequisite for creating a sense of presence. It is yet to be seen how well the built-in audio of these devices performs and if they can be augmented with add-on headphones that can make the experiences more engaging.