Article by Sam Hughes
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Sony in London, to chat to the Garry Taylor and Simon Gumbleton of the audio team at Sony Creative Services Group about their work on Playstation VR: Worlds.
This team have been one of the teams working with the Playstation VR technology for the longest, and with their work on the audio, you can really tell. Overall before I go into detail of the games, I want to say how impressed I was with the seamless 3D placement of sounds. The sound is presented so naturally that I barely noticed much dissonance between realities, from an audio perspective at least.
It’s always worth mentioning that Sony have allowed you to use your own headphones/headsets with the kit to enable you to listen back with whatever you’re most comfortable with.
Before we dive in, here’s an preview from Sony’s video diary, discussing 3D audio across various titles:
Straight away, hats off to the Sony Creative Services Group audio team, with the game’s menu system. When selecting which VR World you would like to enter, an object relating to the experience appears in front of you. Each one of these has some really fun and interactive features. For example, with the The London Heist, shell casings rain slowly from the sky around you, that you can hit away with the controller. With Ocean Descent, a sphere of water appears in front of you. You can hit the ball of water with your controller and create splashing sounds and even place your head inside the sphere! The Scavenger’s Odyssey menu selection, provides a little planet surround by orbiting rocks, which was one of my favourite, listening to each rock collide and move around the planet, and into your face.
Ocean Descent – Shark Encounter
This one gets me good every time, due to me fear of the ocean, and sharks! However the audio is fantastic. It really encapsulates the claustrophobia of being lowered into the depths of the ocean. Not a lot to comment on this one as it really is seamless in terms of the audio that surrounds you as you watch the sealife surround you as the lift ominously drones alongside your descent.
The only barrier I find, in terms of most of these experiences, is the lack of of the touch sensation creates a separation. There’s not a lot at the moment we can do about that, but there’s still that slight separation with the underwater experience.
The London Heist
I thoroughly enjoyed The London Heist. One of the coolest things I like about this title, is the amount of thought and detail with regards to the audio. Even straight away the pub scene is set with great ambient music and audio. You can interact with almost anything in front of you, the coolest of which is the cigar and lighter. Now, not only can you light the cigar and wave it around, pretending you’re in the beginning of Lock Stock or Snatch, but there is also a cool audio feature here. Using the mic on the PSVR headset, the audio team have made the game able listen to the level of your breathing so that if you breathe in and out loud enough whilst holding the cigar to your mouth, you smoke it! This may seem simple but it’s things like this that really excite me about VR. A personal question of mine has been the potential of using the mic within the gaming world for higher levels of immersion, which is stuff like this!
Another great scene is during the van drive/shoot out. The amount of audio components that have been considered is great. Not only is the audio of the scene great with regards immersing you in the situation, you can even do things like open the door and stick your head out into the wind, as well as put your head through the scenery in front of you.
Overall one of my favourite experiences – even if I did mess up near the end and not finish it…- so I highly recommend this one.
What a crazy fun alien blast-fest! It does get a bit disorientating with the jumps, but it’s all good fun. The power of the mech-suit and its weapons, really is sold with the detail and intensity of the audio. The chaos of sound that surrounds you during attack waves also helps add to the adventure and immersion of the experience. Well worth a go!
Basically, an aggressive version of pong where you control a square panel in front of you with your head movements to reflect the ball back at your opponent. I have to admit the game is pretty tricky at first, and you get quite distracted by the game to really focus on the game audio. In terms of design it has some cool sounds for the special attacks and even though it is a basic premise, in terms of audio, it hits all the right spots so you can crack on with your match!
I didn’t actually play this one on the day but I played a while ago and have spoken with Sony about their work on the audio. The most interesting audio feat with this experience, was the music. The music builds up layers using the diegetic music of the cars as you pass them. For example, it starts with no music. As you pass one car that’s playing the drum part, its location originates from the car until you pass and then it becomes a non-diegetic stereo track. This happens with various layers of the music, such as bass lines as well as variations in drum patterns or instrument parts.
After the visit to the actual Sony building I continued to have a few days of playing Playstation VR in the end – I feel quite spoilt for the experiences. In the evening of the same day I visited Sony Creative Services Group, I ventured to Shoreditch for a Playstation VR event, where they had a multitude of PSVR demos available to play. I also managed to play on a friend’s PSVR over the weekend to try out even more games! So here are my thoughts on the demos I tried.
Batman: Arkham VR
I had the great opportunity to try out Batman Arkham: VR at this event. I have to admit right now, that I am a HUGE Batman fan, like a lot of people. So, this experience was definitely a highlight for me.
It sounded fantastic, big props to the Rocksteady team who worked on it. I felt like I was inside the batcave and everything just sounded as realistic as it could.
I have to say I was being a bit thorough with my actions. I was picking up a batarang and keeping hold of it, whilst trying to tap the different surfaces and materials on the way down into the Batcave, to see if it reacted and made an appropriate sound. Sadly, it did not, though I did debate whether this was intentional. For example, due to the fact you have no physical feedback, as you obviously can’t feel the batarang hitting the wall or metal, did they leave the sound out to not confuse the brain? As we already know that part of the cognitive dissonance and confusion can come from hearing sounds where they are not meant to be, as well as not hearing sounds that should be there. Since we’re not getting the force feedback, it may have made sense not to include a sound associated with that action.
Aside from that it was an incredible audio and VR experience overall. YOU GET TO BE BATMAN! I can’t wait to play the full version.
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
Freaky! Great fun with the guns but the audio seriously helps bring tension and unease to the whole ride. As you ride on this literal and emotional roller-coaster, you have to deal with many horrors inspired by Supermassive‘s Until Dawn. The combination of metallic saws, ghost woman and various classic horror techniques will definitely get you.
This rhythm based VR game is one of the most unique that I tried. Firstly, it is 3rd-person unlike all the others, and you follow a beetle on a surreal track created by the music around you. Mainly controller operated, it is still a fantastic VR experience both visually and audibly.
Playstation VR has an enormous potential. As with most platforms we haven’t seen it’s maximum capabilities yet, especially with regards to the audio. What I’m most surprised about is how seamless most of the experiences were due to the cracking implementation of the 3D sound. I thought it would be more jarring with more cognitive dissonance with how we listen in real-life. Please bear in mind you use whatever headphones you want with the VR headset, so your listening experience will vary depending on the quality (not price!) of your chosen headphones.
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The Sound Architect