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What is 3D Audio? 5 Amazing Use Cases

by Ashleigh Harris Chief Marketing Officer

Are you using 3D audio in the games and apps you’re developing? If not, you should be. The global 3D audio market is expected to reach $13 billion by 2026, up from $3.8 billion in 2018. This represents a gigantic financial opportunity for game and app developers when it comes to audio.

What’s driving that growth? The demand for 3D audio experiences in video games, VR/AR, and other applications on mobile devices, tablets, gaming platforms, and more. As consumers continue to crave life-like experiences, the apps and games that deliver the most real-world experience will have a clear leg up against those that do not incorporate this technology.

In this article, we’ll dive into understanding what 3D audio is and show you a number of remarkable use cases that demonstrate the benefits of 3D audio.

What is 3D Audio, and Why is it Important for Developers?

3D audio is another name for spatial audio. Some industry professionals may point out there are technical differences in the definitions for the two. However, 3D audio and spatial audio are both used when talking about an audio experience allowing the listener to pinpoint the direction and distance of sound sources.

For app and game developers, 3D audio is a way to make your product stand out. The use of 3D audio in apps and videos is on the rise, but most still deliver a mono or stereo experience. 3D audio delivers a richer, high quality experience that’s more natural for people because it more closely mimics how we listen to sound in real life. You can hear multiple sounds or voices occurring at the same time.

High Fidelity’s real-time Spatial Audio is cloud-based, which processes audio inputs on the server-side and delivers a single, mixed-stream back to each person. Instead of forcing client-side (or mixing of the sounds on a person’s device, which can be CPU intensive and cause delays and clipping so words and phrases get dropped), our cloud-based processing offers greater scalability and allows hundreds of sounds and voices to be heard clearly at the same time. 

To demonstrate the immersive experience 3D audio offers, here are some real use cases. 

To get the best experience 3D audio has to offer, watch and listen to these videos with a headset or earbuds connected to your computer or device.

Uncharted 4 on PlayStation 4 Pro

This game was created using the previous version of Sony’s native audio engine. New PS5 games are using its latest Tempest 3D AudioTech. Video games are a natural fit for 3D audio. The player is in their own world, whether they’re racing cars, maneuvering through a city, or trying to find a mystical treasure. Incorporating in-game voice chat enhances the immersive experience and allows for collaboration between players.

Here’s what to listen for in the clip of the video game Uncharted 4:

  • The footsteps of the player’s character sound like they’re right underneath you, literally where you would hear the noise if you were running across a bridge or through an ancient temple.
  • You hear the hum of the jeep engine faintly at first, and it gets louder as the main character gets closer. The hum also moves around you as the character moves in the environment.
  • You can practically feel the boulders whoosh past your head when the jeep goes over the cliff’s edge!
  • The direction and volume of the character’s voices and footsteps relate to where they are in the game’s environment. 

Virtual Concerts: Terra Naomi Performance in a Virtual Venue

Virtual options for concerts and music festivals are another ideal use for 3D audio. Check out this live demo of what it might be like to attend a virtual concert.

Here’s what you’ll experience listening to this song:

  • You can move yourself towards the stage to hear the singer as you move past people having conversations.
  • If you stay in the demo long enough, you’ll hear the audience clapping at the end of a song all around you.

Virtual Experiences: Barbershop Example

This example may seem like an odd use case, but it does have practical implementations. Audiobooks, tablet and smartphone apps, and video games could all use this level of detailed 3D audio to heighten users’ experiences.

Make a note of these special moments in this example’s audio:

  • Listen closely at 0:25. Manuel is walking away from you, but you can tell he turns back toward you as he’s walking away and talking, and then turns away again to get Luigi. 
  • You can hear Luigi in a distant room based on the faintness and echo of his voice.
  • Another super realistic moment happens from 1:18 - 1:33. Luigi puts a plastic bag over your head (as you’d expect a barber to do). Can you FEEL the plastic bag over your head from the crinkling noises all around you? 
  • While Luigi explains the recording process for spatial audio, you can also hear Manuel a little further off to your left speaking to someone on the phone (and telling them, “We don’t do no stinking perms!”). Again, this is possible because 3D audio enables more than one conversation to happen at the same time so that more than one person’s speech is intelligible -- like an in-person experience.
  • The scissors and electric clippers demonstration is spot on. You don’t just hear it in your left and right ears... You can almost feel the vibrations on your neck as Luigi passes behind you.

Spatial/3D Audio on a Zoom Call

Zoom and other video calls are now the norm in our personal and professional lives. Whether it’s a business call or checking in with friends and family far away, 3D audio would make it feel like you’re in the same room as the person or people you’re talking to.

Take a listen to this clip to hear how the experience would be different if Zoom used 3D audio.

  • Starting out, it sounds like a typical Zoom call.
  • At 0:13, the spatial/3D audio technology kicks in, and you hear the various voices sound like they are now around you instead of being streamed in from a single source.
  • The section about favorite food items is initially done in mono audio. Having just had a short experience of 3D audio, going back to mono audio feels flat.
  • The replay of the favorite food discussion starting at 1:05 is back to spatial audio. Notice how clear everyone sounds even when they are all talking at once. 
  • In the mono version, the person saying “chocolate” is partially cut out to the point that you only hear the “-late” instead of the whole word. In the 3D audio version, you can hear her clearly say “chocolate.” 

Why do some words get cut out in Zoom calls if two or more people talk at the same time? Because Zoom uses mono audio (sound emanating from one source), the two or more voices are competing to be in that one signal. Zoom simply cuts all but one out.

However, our spatial audio technology uses cloud-based, server-side processing for audio signals. This allows us to deliver 5, 10, 20, or more voices simultaneously. In contrast, Zoom uses client-side or on-device processing, which causes delays and strips out multiple voices. This is why you only hear the “-late” in the mono version of the favorite food conversation, but hear “chocolate” loud and clear in the spatial version.

Spatial Audio at Virtual Cocktail Party

Virtual events became the new norm in 2020 and into 2021 for obvious reasons. Streaming live and recorded content and chat-based networking events have been the solution so far, but innovation in this space continues. 

How can you best replicate social hours at an industry conference virtually? Spatial audio. This clip is an example of how spatial audio can level-up the experience of virtual event attendees. 

Here’s what to listen for:

  • The volume of speaking voices grows louder as you approach the group. 
  • Turning from one person to the next changes their voice's volume and position just as it would at an in-person event. 
  • Because spatial audio gives each person their own “track,” you can hear everyone, even when they are all talking at once. 
  • Notice how you can also hone in on one person in this space with multiple voices. That’s how we experience loud cocktail parties. If we heard in stereo, we wouldn’t be able to pick out one voice in the crowd. But because we hear and process sound in a “3D” nature, you can pick out the voice of the person you want to listen to even as dozens of people talk around you.
  • Moving away from the initial group, the voices fade just as they would if you walked away from them in real life. As you approach the other groups, their voices increase in volume, then decrease again as you approach the stage.
  • The music starts faint but gets louder as you finish up by the stage.

The Uses for 3D Audio are Nearly Limitless

From collaboration and communication tools to VR and virtual event applications, audio innovation possibilities using 3D are there for the taking.

The best part? 

It’s easy to integrate using High Fidelity’s Spatial Audio API. With just a few lines of code, you can deliver an immersive, audio experience to your users that heightens their enjoyment of your product or service.

We’re excited to see what you build.

Published by Ashleigh Harris March 4, 2021

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