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Audio Pros Prepare for VR’s Next Step

By Steve Harvey. By mid-2018, some pundits were ready to write off virtual reality as headset sales took a downward turn in only their second year of commercial availability. Now, after a sharp uptick in sales at the end of last year, it appears possible that predictions of VR’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

Los Angeles, CA—By mid-2018, some pundits were ready to write off virtual reality as headset sales took a downward turn in only their second year of commercial availability. Now it appears those predictions of VR’s demise were premature; a sharp uptick at the end of last year was followed in April by analysts at IDC predicting that 2019 would see a 54 percent growth in headset sales over 2018, driving a 66 percent annual growth rate through 2023.

That said, in February of this year, a digital publication focusing on virtual and augmented reality reported that VRLA, an annual VR conference held in Los Angeles that last year attracted 10,000 attendees, was taking a hiatus this year. It quoted a co-organizer of the event as saying, somewhat enigmatically, “VR is in a weird place right now, and we’re taking a break while it sorts itself out.”

New York City has no such reservations. In October 2018, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME), and Brooklyn Navy Yard announced the launch of RLab, the first city-funded virtual and augmented reality lab in the country. The program is administered by NYU Tandon School of Engineering with a participating consortium of New York City universities, including Columbia University, CUNY and The New School.

Related: New Audio Offerings at VRLA 2018, by Steve Harvey, May 8, 2018

“The existence of RLab is a sign of New York City’s commitment to this industry,” says Janice Brown, manager, education and outreach at RLab (and PSN’s recording editor for six years, through 2007). “Its mission is to spur economic growth in this industry in New York and to make it a global hub.”

Operating out of a warehouse in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, RLab’s ambitious program offers education to practitioners looking to move into or advance in the field of VR and AR, as well as to corporations seeking to train employees, via masterclasses and workshops. Online courses launch in August. An accelerator program kicks off in the fall and, as XR Beta, already involves 10 startups co-working at RLab. There is also community outreach, says Brown.

Some of the immediate growth areas for XR—extended reality, the umbrella for VR, AR and MR, or mixed reality—are healthcare, heavy industry and smart cities, according to Brown, and RLab’s initial programming reflects that.

For sound designers and engineers currently employed in media and entertainment who are prepared to make a transition to these corporate environments, there are tremendous opportunities, she says. “The trick is figuring out how to get involved without having to learn how to code—but some of the sound designers I know are just diving in. I hope we can be a resource for folks like that,” says Brown.

GameSoundCon, an annual conference that offers in-depth technical presentations and workshops at a two-day event in downtown Los Angeles (this year it will be Oct. 29–30 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel), launched 10 years ago to assist people film and TV sound transition into games. It has also addressed the interests of VR practitioners for several years; founder Brian Schmidt is bullish about the future of VR, using the term as shorthand for all the related disciplines. In fact, he reports, at a recent conference, Sally-ann Kellaway, senior audio designer at Microsoft, coined a new term to cover VR, AR, MR and XR: WR, or Whatev’R.

Related stories from Pro Sound News:
Andreas Sennheiser Offers Insight Into AMBEO, April 23, 2019
Review: Sennheiser/Apogee AMBEO Smart Headset, by Russ Long, June 4, 2018
Review: Sennheiser AMBEO VR Microphone, by Rob Tavaglione, Dec. 6, 2017

VR has been tremendous for sound professionals, Schmidt says, noting that even people on the visual side now recognize the importance of sound to the medium. As he notes, there were opportunities galore from the get-go: “VR was the sound designer employment act of 2016,” he says, generating work in research and development of the much-needed tools and technology as well as the creation of content as the business began to take off.

Don’t write VR off too soon, says Schmidt, pointing out that it is still very much in its infancy. “The film industry didn’t go from Al Jolson to Star Wars in five years. And it’s not going to replace traditional interactive media; it just expands it.”

However, he says, despite the great strides that the audio tools and technologies have taken with respect to VR in a few short years, there is room for improvement. “There are some almost mundane issues we have to deal with to make audio believable and real in VR,” he says. For instance, “We need a dialogue pipeline with multiple performances for different distances that the character might be from the player,” he says, since HRTF and reverb modeling still don’t deliver sufficiently believable results.

Brian Glasscock, project manager for Sennheiser’s AMBEO Immersive Audio products and program, also cautions against dismissing VR out of hand. “As a company, we still see the long-term value of immersive audio, especially in relation to augmented and virtual reality,” he says. “I think we’re just in a moment of transition as we move away from hype-based activities and early types of content—in particular, 360 video—as these new mediums move toward finding the appropriate niches and applications for these new types of spatial computing.”

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Sennheiser has brought various tools addressing VR to market, says Glasscock, beginning with the Ambisonic AMBEO VR microphone. That was followed by the AMBEO Smart Headset, for consumer and portable binaural recording applications. More recently, Sennheiser launched the AMBEO AR One, an accessory for the Magic Leap One AR headset. “It allows people to have an excellent audio experience by using in-ear headphones while also still being able to maintain a connection to the outside world,” he says.

If anything, the VR business is simply following well-established models regarding the lifecycle of any new technology. “It’s not disconcerting that some of the initial excitement has died down as the hard work of bringing it to the mainstream begins,” says Glasscock. “We’re still excited about it and think that it has the potential to reshape how media is created, and how people enjoy content.”

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