In recent months, Apple and Sony have introduced some amazing new products — and it’s not the new iPhone and Playstation that’s getting all the attention. Today, spatial audio promises to change the way people consume content.
“Back in the day if you played a game using the TV speakers, you could tell that there was one last enemy growling and hunting you down, but it was difficult to tell quite where that enemy was,” said Sony’s Mark Cerny in PS5 and 3D Audio: Everything You Need to Know. “But with 3D audio with good locality, the idea is you know the enemy is precisely there. And you turn, and take it out.”
If you’re a game or app developer interested in leveraging the power of spatial audio, you probably have a few questions related to benefits and use cases. In this article, we’ll cover the major benefits of spatial audio and why gaming and app development companies are rushing to grab a portion of the market.
What are the 3 Major Benefits of Spatial Audio?
Most advanced audio engineers and developers know that spatial audio mimics sound in real life. In fact, the cool thing about it is that the audio is delivered to your ears from different directions so that it’s similar to how you process sounds in the physical world.
Not only does spatial audio account for volume, it also tracks users’ orientation relative to the sound source. For example, a barking dog might sound as if it is behind you as you slowly rotate your head.
Moreover, room reflections play a crucial role in how users experience sounds. In short, spatial audio enables audio engineers and developers to capture subtle audio details. In this way, teams can create complete audio-visual immersion.
Even with the best equipment and in a studio, recordings don’t come close to how users hear and process sound in the real world. In most cases, sound present in movies and music is positioned in a stereo field. As we’ll explore, stereo sound is quite limited compared to the immersive soundscapes introduced via spatial audio.
Benefit #1: Spatial Audio Replicates How Sound is Processed in Real Life
The sounds we hear everyday are complex. We're used to hearing the world in three dimensions, and our ears do a seamless job of processing a myriad of sounds at the same time.
The remarkable thing about spatial audio is that it recreates sound digitally as we would hear it in real life.
What does “real” sound like?
- Positional: Sounds change based on how close or far you are from a sound source.
- Directional: When you tilt or turn your head, sounds change based on the direction of your ears.
- Spherical: The height of a sound, whether it’s above or below, is fundamental to how we hear but is rare in digital audio technology.
The limitations of audio and video conferencing, for example, underline the importance of life-like audio. Unfortunately, audio emitted from a sound system, computer, or smartphone is typically limited to a 90-degree stereo field — meaning it’s horizontal.
Although positional, the stereo field is a linear plane of 45 degrees for the left and right ears respectively. An audio engineer can adjust a sound's position by panning the sound left or right to the desired percentage, which has the effect of moving from one ear to the other. It helps add clarity to a recording, but each sound is still limited to a fairly narrow range.
Spatial audio opens up the full range of sound, giving a 3D sonic landscape.
Benefit #2: Spatial Audio Provides an Immersive and Dynamic Experience
Spatial audio makes a digital world more real. It’s a sophisticated approximation of how “reality” sounds, with the effect of drawing users deeper into the experience.
For example, when playing a video game, you might hear an AC unit humming above your head as you run through a dark corridor. The sound buzzes louder as you move closer.
The position, direction, and vertical distance influence how you hear each sound. Birds chirping in a tree, a waterfall crashing in the distance — all of it would be in a lush, three-dimensional environment using spatial audio.
There’s also a significant opportunity for app developers to create real-time immersive experiences using spatial audio. Digital meeting spaces like Hubbub are becoming popular for webinars and events as a preferred alternative to in-person meetups.
A new virtual events platform, Skittish, also relies on spatial audio to provide a more life-like experience. It’s designed to allow event attendees to make serendipitous connections with other participants, as they might in-person.
Spatial audio allows participants to occupy a three-dimensional sphere of sound and manipulate it in real-time. You could stroll through virtual space with hundreds of participants and move in and out of conversations as easily as walking down a street.
You could go anywhere in the room to hear a speaker more clearly. If a group is chatting on the side, you could turn your head to listen in or relocate just like you could if you were in an actual room.
For a conference, companies could have hundreds of reps operating booths in a digital auditorium. Customers could engage similarly to how they would in person, and adding spatial audio would make for a more dynamic experience. Companies are even being charged for booth space at digital events like these.
Benefit #3: Spatial Audio Provides Improved Clarity and Accuracy of Live Audio
Spatial audio allows you to pinpoint a sound’s location and distinguish it from multiple sources, making it very useful in live voice applications.
Think about a Google Hangout or a Zoom call with people talking at the same time — it's nearly impossible to hear what is said. Not only frustrating, but the overlap of multiple speakers also makes it hard to determine who said what.
In a room, sounds bounce off the walls and ceiling, which helps us zero in on its location. You lose those cues in a Zoom meeting. In a live audio stream, the signals are stacked on top of each other, clogging up the center. The result is competing frequencies that sound like mud.
Clarity is what makes real-time spatial audio shine.
By discreetly separating audio sources into a 3D sonic space, you can hear everything accurately, without the mud. Each voice is in a 360-degree environment, so if you want to focus on a particular speaker, your brain can focus in the direction of that person’s voice, or in a 3D environment, you can even move yourself closer to a sound.
The applications for Massive Online Multiplayers (MMOs) are compelling for similar reasons. If you're talking to an NPC, players battling nearby enemies could make your conversation with the tavern girl more decipherable.
Like the Zoom meeting, spatial audio adds clarity, helping you hear what she is saying and simultaneously localizing the carnage in the distance.
Leverage the Power of Spatial Audio in Your Video Game or App
As you’ve seen, spatial audio creates a life-like audio experience for both in-game voice chat and web applications. And that’s only a glimpse of what you can do with it...
Today, a growing community of audio engineers and developers have adopted this new and emerging technology. Moreover, companies like Apple are priming consumers by releasing products that support spatial audio, including AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Google’s getting into the spatial audio game, too.
We can start seeing 3D audio become the new standard as other companies jump on the bandwagon.
So, where does spatial audio fit in with your project?
High Fidelity’s Spatial Audio API has the ability to process hundreds of sound sources in real-time, with nearly imperceptible latency. In as few as 15 minutes, users can create a developer account and launch a simple web application – it’s that easy and the possible applications are endless.