Dolby has brought its Atmos surround sound experience to cinematic virtual reality by partnering with VR filmmakers Jaunt to create 360-degree immersive experiences.
Dolby Atmos basically removed the need to position speakers at home in exactly the same position as the microphones were positioned during the audio mixing in order to enjoy an immersive surround sound experience. What is more, the technology negated the need for speakers at all and made it possible for the first time to replicate the surround sound effect on a pair of headphones.
Three virtual reality experiences are available from Jaunt with audio creating using Dolby mixing tools: Sundance film Kaizu, a live rendition of Live and Let Die by Paul McCartney, and a terrifying short called Black Mass.
Atmos is already used in reams of existing films, including many big blockbusters, but the impact of multidirectional sound in a truly immersive environment is the thing that Dolby believes takes the VR experience to a whole new level.
“Audio in virtual reality is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” the company’s director of virtual and augmented reality Joel Susal tells WIRED UK. Susal points out in real life there is no screen that frames reality—we are totally aware that as much exists behind us as it does in front of us. In a virtual reality, we need to feel similarly stimulated by our environment.
In traditional films, he adds, directors are very good at pulling our focus to certain points on the screen, but in a 3-D environment, there needs to be more than just visual stimuli. “Your ears move your head,” he says, and this why directional sound is so important. In virtual reality, the sound enhances the deception and allows filmmakers to guide us through the story—particularly if that story is going to freak you the heck out, as it did when I demoed Black Mass at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
The experience itself went something like this: the light comes on in a garage and a teenage girl is standing “I think they slipped us something,” she says before sliding under the garage door promising to be back. The light goes off and when it comes back on another girl, a child, is walking towards me. “I think you’re bleeding,” she says. I look down and when I look up again and she is running off behind me.
Things only get stranger—a tall hooded figure captures me and I am transported to a number of odd, cultish locations; I am in and out of darkness; noises drag my attention from place to place. I feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed in a way I never do sitting on a sofa watching a scary film.
It is like the worst house of horrors ever. Two of my senses are being overly stimulated and are on high alert—the rest of me is rendered slightly useless by the panic. The brief blackout periods only serve to perk up my ears—in those moments they are all I have to rely on.
Surround sound VR doesn’t have to just be plain terrifying however. In a second demo I am on stage with Paul McCartney at the final ever concert to be held at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. There is no better place to be if you want to see McCartney up close at the piano and I experience the full force of his voice. As I turn to face the drummer however, the direction of the noise the singing is coming from is notably different. Similarly, when I turn to face the audience the roars and screams of the crowd get louder.
Virtual reality is a fairly new form of entertainment, but across the scale from low-to-high end, sound is clearly going to be necessary for truly immersive storytelling.
All of Jaunt and Dolby’s joint ventures can be downloaded from the Google Play Store. To be able to try them out you need a compatible Android phone and a Google Cardboard headset.