Hey everybody! I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips. At this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I was pleased to give a presentation entitled Music in Virtual Reality (I’ve included the official description of my talk at the end of this article). While I’ve enjoyed discussing the role of music in virtual reality in previous articles that I’ve posted here, the talk I gave at GDC gave me the opportunity to pull a lot of those ideas together and present a more concentrated exploration of the practice of music composition for VR games. It occurred to me that such a focused discussion might be interesting to share in this forum as well. So, with that in mind, I’m excited to begin a four-part article series based on my GDC 2018 presentation!
The Game Developers Conference is almost here! I’m looking forward to giving my presentation soon on “Music in Virtual Reality” (Thursday, March 22nd at 3pm in room 3002 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco). Over the course of the last two years, I’ve composed a lot of music for virtual reality projects, some of which have already hit retail, and some of which will be getting released very soon! As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what role music should play in a virtual reality game. During my GDC talk in March, I’ll be taking my audience through my experiences composing music for four very different VR games –the Bebylon: Battle Royale game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike RPG-Shooter hybrid from Labrodex Inc. In preparing my GDC presentation, I made sure my talk addressed some of the most important creative and technical hurdles facing video game composers working in VR. However, time constraints ensured that some interesting info ended up ‘on the cutting room floor,’ so to speak. So, I’ve written two articles that explore some of the best topics that didn’t make it into my GDC presentation.
VR games currently focus on binaural audio to immerse players in the awesome soundscapes of their virtual worlds. As we know, binaural recording techniques use two microphones, often embedded in the artificial ears of a dummy head (pictured right). By virtual of the popular binaural recording technique and/or binaural encoding technologies, game audio teams can plunge VR players into convincing aural worlds where sounds are spatially localized in a way that conforms with real world expectations. The technology of binaural sound continually improves, and recently the expert developers of the Oculus Rift VR headset have refined the quality of their VR sound with two significant upgrades.
In this blog, I thought we might take a quick look at the development of the three dimensional audio technologies that promise to be a vital part of music and sound for a virtual reality video game experience. Starting from its earliest incarnations, we’ll follow 3D audio through the fits and starts that it endured through its tumultuous history. We’ll trace its development to the current state of affairs, and we’ll even try to imagine what may be coming in the future! But first, let’s start at the beginning:
3D Audio of the Past
In the 1930s, English engineer and inventor Alan Blumlein invented a process of audio recording that involved a pair of microphones that were coincident (i.e. placed closely together to capture a sound source). Blumlein’s intent was to accurately reflect the directional position of the sounds being recorded, thus attaining a result that conveyed spatial relationships in a more faithful way. In reality, Blumlein had invented what we now call stereo, but the inventor himself referred to his technique as “binaural sound.” As we know, stereo has been an extremely successful format, but the fully realized concept of “binaural sound” would not come to fruition until much later.