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Android Headliner: Is Spatial Audio Google’s Last Piece of the VR Puzzle?

January 25, 2016 - Written By Tom Dawson

In the ever-expanding world of virtual reality, the above picture of the original Google Cardboard looks a little ridiculous in the face of the Oculus Rift and Samsung’s mobile-centric Gear VR headset. However, Google was never looking to get into the game to make oodles of cash like Oculus or even Sony (when they decided to sell the Morpheus, that is) and instead were more interested in getting the whole platform off of the ground for the future of VR creators and content consumers. It’s an admirable endeavor, and one that we’ve seen from Google before, after all the Internet wouldn’t be as easy to navigate if it weren’t for Google. Google have been playing a steady long game with Cardboard and virtual reality in general, but they just announced one more piece of the puzzle that could be the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s going to take a lot of work for a Google Cardboard headset to ever be that appealing, but Google have turned over one more key to developers, and it could be a big deal, indeed.

Not too long ago, Google introduced Spatial Audio to their Cardboard SDK. The idea is much as it sounds, to give apps and games built using the Cardboard SDK much better sound capabilities and certainly more of a sound that belongs to VR. This is a bigger deal than most people will realize, because it not only reaffirms Google’s commitment to making experiences that are actually good, but it gives developers one more reason to jump onboard, with much of the hard work done for them.

I’m the big audio nerd at Android Headlines, and I’ve been lucky enough to review great headphones like the Master & Dynamic MH40, in-ear headphones like the RHA T20 and even excellent affordable options from companies like Rock Jaw Audio. I’d like to think I know what sounds good, and I understand why placement can be so important when listening to music and, more relevantly to VR, playing games or watching movies. On my desk I have a Fostex DAC that feeds into a small HiFi amp powering two classic Kenwood studio monitors. This is only left and right stereo, but the imaging is excellent and I can here the separation between different instruments and if something is far-left, I can hear it far-left. With headphones however – which is how the majority of people will enjoy virtual reality content – things become a lot more difficult. With a set of open-back headphones, that allow sound to bleed out and refract back in, the stereo effect is great and it almost feels as if the band or artist is performing right there in the room with you. With closed-back and in-ear headphones things get a little worse and the more closed-away you find yourself the less separation there are between instruments and it can feel like someone is singing directly into your ears, rather than a more natural and nuanced performance. Software however, can fix this – sort of.

Anyone that’s played video games with a virtual surround sound headset will know what I’m talking about here and while many believe that these headsets are “crap” and “just use stereo” the effect can be quite good. When playing on my PS4, I use a Turtle Beach PX4 headset, I bought it mostly for the wireless convenience (they’re not especially good or comfy, but they’re convenient) but the virtual surround sound can be excellent in some games. I say some games, and PC gamers will know what I’m talking about here, because not all game developers pay much attention to surround sound. Playing Bloodborne with surround sound on is a great experience, and while I’ll admit some of the sounds seem a little artificial, it does make a difference. So too, does playing Black Ops III with surround sound on, something far away on the map to my right sounds that way, a grenade going off further up ahead to my left will sound like that as well. This is all fine and good, but the “some games” bit is where people get frustrated, and Google might have solved this.

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It’s easy to mess around with sound signatures and output on smartphones these days. Sony and OnePlus (to name just a couple) ship devices with excellent audio tuning software, and it doesn’t feel artificial (depending on which settings you mix together). Devices from Acer and Lenovo have shipped with virtual Dolby Surround Sound for years, so it’s not a difficult thing to do. Why Google’s adoption of Spatial Audio is such a big deal is because it’s there in the Cardboard SDK, ready and waiting for developers to use it. As per the Google Developer’s blog post, the SDK will include tools for both Unity and native Android developers to simply and easily create their own soundscape and control how sounds act. Devs can easily choose the size of their environment and characteristics, the rest is taken care of by the Cardboard SDK, even combining the “physiology of a listener’s head with the positions of virtual sound sources to determine what users hear.”

You can have all the pixels in the world, and in the case of a VR headset the sharpest lenses in the world, but if the sound experience isn’t there, the immersive factor won’t be either. Think back to when you were young, and heading out to see one of your favorite films at the theater – my “movie moment” was Star Wars: Episode I (no judging, please) – and the first time that you hear all these layers of different sound effects, the fade of an explosion or swoop of an engine panning from the top corner of the screen to the bottom corner, left to right, all in time and matching the screen perfectly. Our Reviews Editor Nick Sutrich spent some time with HTC and the VIVE Pre during CES 2016, and while the Everest demo was great, the sound was well, average, and when you’re supposed to be up that high you’d expect wind and all sorts of noise to take hold and excite your ears as well as your eyes. These are the sorts of experiences we should be getting from virtual reality, even more so if a $599 price tag is what we’ll have to deal with for the next two or three years.

Of course, this is just the beginning for Google’s Cardboard SDK, with the new Spatial Audio addition, all the pieces might be ready for developers, but there’s a long way to go. Looking back at how Google has handled Cardboard, it’s interesting to see where Google thinks VR is heading. It almost reminds me of how YouTube started out, small but with a lot of potential. Google has begun using Cardboard experiences in the classroom, they’re partnering with the likes of GoPro to enable creators to better do their thing and anyone can try it for next-to-nothing. If printing off your headset and making one from scratch isn’t your thing, the blueprint is freely available, and some plastic alternatives are available with pretty good results for small price tags. Google isn’t interested in becoming the next Oculus, instead they want everyone to have a small taste of the Oculus experience. Presumably, Google is hoping to get the whole platform off the ground to make Android the place to experience VR on mobile, and we’re sure content being sold or streamed through YouTube is one of their end goals as well, but for now, Google represents the cheapest and best way to get involved in VR.

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Spatial Audio is going to be a big deal, and it makes the whole Cardboard experience much more credible and attractive to both developers and consumers. The only question that remains is how developers are going to use this new technology. I was never that interested in VR until Google announced Spatial Audio, the visual experience can be as good as it wants to be, but if the audio isn’t up to the same level, the whole experience is a sour one for me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some VR headset shopping to do, hopefully experiences and games with Spatial Audio start appearing real soon.