Rob Bridgett on the virtues of VR

Eidos Montreal audio director Rob Bridgett offers an insight into what the advent of virtual reality could mean not just for the game audio industry, but the wider world.

As the release of multiple VR formats grows tantalisingly close, we find ourselves on a precipice of the unknown. Do we find ourselves on the verge of one of the most revolutionary new entertainment and experience paradigms? Do the tech demos and launch titles that are already stacked up to showcase the new technologies have enough gameplay depth to make them more than novelty? And what does this mean for audio, beyond the technology?

As content creators, we are already finding it challenging to conceive of and author content in the same ways we do for traditional game or movie media. The things that work and the things that don’t work from our current models of game making, game playing and filmmaking are equally fascinating. 3D positional object-based sound seems to translate fairly immediately, and even helps to cement the audiovisual contract that what we see has an element of the physical and concrete about it. It strengthens the experience overall. In music terms, an approach like Playthings, where the player gets to interact and trigger music in a hyper-stylised coloured world seems much more suited to the medium than that of a traditional orchestral score played non-positionally in the stereo field to accompany a horror movie-like experience.

This brings up an interesting schism that also occurred at the beginning of the 20th century when cinema was in its infancy. What was cinema? Was it a medium for conveying realism like Train Pulling Into a Station (1895) by the Lumiere Brothers or transporting the audience to surreal, impossible fantastical places through use of effects and editing (A Trip to the Moon, 1902 and The Impossible Voyage, 1904 by Georges Méliès)? Of course, cinema turned out to be about both of these things, to varying degrees, but more importantly, it became a powerful medium for storytelling.

Forward thinking

For a moment, we should consider the potential uses for VR that are far beyond just gaming or entertainment of any kind. The technology has serious medical and military applications that still seem like a thread of speculative fiction. Having someone pilot a weapons device or drone using 3D cameras and live stream of binaural stereo microphones will enable a ‘pilot’ to see and hear the situation on the ground as though they are where their ‘proxy’ body is. Waging war or policing troubled areas would become decidedly closer to dystopian science fiction where human interaction, and personal risk, is minimised. In a more benevolent context, the technology could enable surgeons to pilot and control micro or nano robots and perform previously unimaginable surgical procedures. Exploration of remote and hostile environments could similarly be carried out by remote proxy machines, while the operator is safe in the control room. The 2009 movie Surrogates painted a bleak picture where pain, fear and consequences no longer existed for the users of these ‘surrogate’ bodies.

In a slightly less terrifying application, VR could enable programmers or video game artists and movie developers to move around in the scenes they are creating in their 3D engines, and place sound emitters or special effects for example, and see the scene up close. Similarly, an office worker in a soulless open plan office could wear a VR headset to appear to be in a beautiful cathedral while they work, or a cabin by the ocean, a way of relieving many of the less pleasant trappings of every day work. Similarly on long-haul flights, passengers could be transported to a large movie theatre to watch their in-flight films.

Perhaps commercial momentum and interest will build as an extension of other already successful mass market experiences, offering deeper and more detailed exploration of connected online spaces shared with other gamers who are playing on console or mobile? Attending live concerts and conferences via VR streams rather than being at the actual venue?

Endless possibilities

I think by exposing some of the species-altering potential for the medium, beyond gaming or enhanced films, we can really start to think of newer and more innovative applications for sound and audio in these experiences. Streaming live sound from a proxy binaural microphone is one such technology that I believe is already being developed and tested. With the huge market in flyable drones proving popular, an additional VR control layer to that experience could become very popular. Imagine gamification of these live-streamed experiences.

Games and experiences themselves have already discovered that the need for convincing and realistic audio is absolutely necessary to the experience of presence in a virtual world of any kind, whether entirely manufactured, or streamed proxy reality.

Perhaps then VR will enable us to no longer distinguish between realism and stories that even have impact in the real world. VR, while it has transformative and far-reaching implications for how we interact with the world, and with each other, I have no doubt it will take our storytelling to a much more impactful and experiential level than even the most powerful films and documentaries. I also have no doubt that audio technology coupled with the creative forces of sound design, music composition, acting and mixing will all play a critical role, perhaps even more than they do in linear and non-VR game media, in those experiences.

Rob Bridgett is audio director at Eidos Montreal.