By Beth Marchant
The first things most people think of when starting out in VR is which 360-degree camera rig they need and what software is best for stitching. But virtual reality is not just a Gordian knot for production and post. Audio is as important — and complex — a component as the rest. In fact, audio designers, engineers and composers have been fascinated and challenged by VR’s potential for some time and, working alongside future-looking production facilities, are equally engaged in forging its future path. We talked to several industry pros on the front lines.
Music industry veteran and Hobo Audio founder Howard Bowler traces his interest in VR back to the groundbreaking film Avatar. “When that movie came out, I saw it three times in the same week,” he says. I was floored by the technology. It was the first time I felt like you weren’t just watching a film, but actually in the film.” As close to virtual reality as 3D films had gotten to that point, it was the blockbuster’s evolved process of motion capture and virtual cinematography that ultimately delivered its breathtaking result.
“Sonically it was extraordinary, but visually it was stunning as well,” he says. “As a result, I pressed everyone here at the studio to start buying 3D televisions, and you can see where that has gotten us — nowhere.” But a stepping stone in technology is more often a sturdy bridge, and Bowler was not discouraged. “I love my 3D TVs, and I truly believe my interest in that led me and the studio directly into VR-related projects.”
When discussing the kind of immersive technology Hobo Sound is involved with today, Bowler — like others interviewed for this series — clearly define VR’s parallel deliverables. “First, there’s 360 video, which is passive viewing, but still puts you in the center of the action. You just don’t interact with it. The second type, more truly immersive VR, lets you interact with the virtual environment as in a video game. The third area is augmented reality,” like the Pokemon Go phenomenon of projecting virtual objects and views onto your actual, natural environment. “It’s really important to know what you’re talking about when discussing these types of VR with clients, because there are big differences.”
With each segment comes related headsets, lenses and players. “Microsoft’s HoloLens, for example, operates solely in AR space,” says Hobo producer Jon Mackey. “It’s a headset, but will project anything that is digitally generated, either on the wall or to the space in front of you. True VR separates you from all that, and really good VR separates all your senses: your sight, your hearing and even touch and feeling, like some of those 4D rides at Disney World.” Which technology will triumph? “Some think VR will take it, and others think AR will have wider mass adoption,” says Mackey. “But we think it’s too early to decide between either one.”
Those kinds of end-game obstacles are beside the point, says Bowler. “The main reason why we’re interested in VR right now is that the experiences, beyond the limitations of whatever headset you watch it on, are still mind-blowing. It gives you enough of a glimpse of the future that it’s incredible. There are all kinds of obstacles it presents just because it’s new technology, but from our point of view, we’ve honed it to make it pretty seamless. We’re digging past a lot of these problem areas, so at least from the user standpoint, it seems very easy. That’s our goal. Down the road, people from medical, education and training are going to need to understand VR for very productive reasons. And we’re positioning ourselves to be there on behalf of our clients.”
Hobo’s all-in commitment to VR has brought changes to its services as well. “Because VR is an emerging technology, we’re investing in it globally,” says Bowler. “Our company is expanding into complete production, from concepting — if the client needs it — to shooting, editing and doing all of the audio post. We have the longest experience in audio post, but we find that this is just such an exciting area that we wanted to embrace it completely. We believe in it and we believe this is where the future is going to be. Everybody here is completely on board to move this forward and sees its potential.”
To ramp up on the technology, Hobo teamed up with several local students who were studying at specialty schools. “As we expanded out, we got asked to work with a few production companies, including East Coast Digital and End of Era Productions, that are doing the video side of it. We’re bundling our services with them to provide a comprehensive set of services.” Hobo is also collaborating with Hidden Content, a VR production and post production company, to provide 360 audio for premium virtual reality content. Hidden Content’s clients include Samsung, 451 Media, Giant Step, PMK-BNC, Nokia and Popsugar.
There is still plenty of magic sauce in VR audio that continues to make it a very tricky part of the immersive experience, but Bowler and his team are engineering their way through it. “We’ve been developing a mixing technique that allows you to tie the audio to the actual object,” he says. “What that does is disrupt the normal stereo mix. Say you have a public speaker in the center of the room; normally that voice would turn with you in your headphones if you turn away from him. What we’re able to do is to tie the audio of the speaker to the actual object, so when you turn your head, it will pan to the right earphone. That also allows you to use audio as signaling devices in the storyline. If you want the viewer to look in a certain direction in the environment, you can use an audio cue to do that.”
Hobo engineer Diego Jimenez drove a lot of that innovation, says Mackey. “He’s a real VR aficionado and just explored a lot of the software and mixing techniques required to do audio in VR. We started out just doing a ton of tests and they all proved successful.” Jimenez was always driven by new inspiration, notes Bowler. “He’s certainly been leading our sound design efforts on a lot of fronts, from creating instruments to creating all sorts of unusual and original sounds. VR was just the natural next step for him, and for us. For example, one of the spots that we did recently was to create a music video and we had to create an otherworldly environment. And because we could use our VR mixing technology, we could also push the viewer right into the experience. It was otherworldly, but you were in that world. It’s an amazing feeling.”
What advice do Bowler and Mackey have for those interested in VR production and post? “360 video is to me the entry point to all other versions of immersive content,” says Bowler. “It’s the most basic, and it’s passive, like what we’re used to — television and film. But it’s also a completely undefined territory when it comes to production technique.” So what’s the way in? “You can draw on some of the older ways of doing productions,” he says, “but how do you storyboard in 360? Where does the director sit? How do you hide the crew? How do you light this stuff? All of these things have to be considered when creating 360 video. That also includes everyone on camera: all the viewer has to do is look around the virtual space to see what’s going on. You don’t want anything that takes the viewer out of that experience.”
Bowler thinks 360 video is also the perfect entry point to VR for marketers and advertisers creating branded VR content, and Hobo’s clients agree. “When we’ve suggested 360 video on certain projects and clients want to try it out, what that does is it allows the technology to breathe a little while it’s underwritten at the same time. It’s a good way to get the technology off the ground and also to let clients get their feet wet in it.”
Any studio or client contemplating VR, adds Mackey, should first find what works for them and develop an efficient workflow. “This is not really a solidified industry yet,” he says. “Nothing is standard, and everyone’s waiting to see who comes out on top and who falls by the wayside. What’s the file standard going to be? Or the export standard? Will it be custom-made apps on (Google) YouTube or Facebook? We’ll see Facebook and Google battle it out in the near term. Facebook has recently acquired an audio company to help them produce audio in 360 for their video app and Google has the Daydream platform,” though neither platform’s codec is compatible with the other, he points out. “If you mix your audio to Facebook audio specs, you can actually have your audio come out in 360. For us, it’s been trial and error, where we’ve experimented with these different mixing techniques to see what fits and what works.”
Still, Bowler concedes, there is no true business yet in VR. “There are things happening and people getting things out there, but it’s still so early in the game. Sure, our clients are intrigued by it, but they are still a little mystified by what the return will be. I think this is just part of what happens when you deal with new technology. I still think it’s a very exciting area to be working in, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t touch across many, many different subjects, from history to the arts to original content. Think about applications for geriatrics, with an aging population that gets less mobile but still wants to experience the Caribbean or our National Parks. The possibilities are endless.”
At one point, he admits, it may even become difficult to distinguish one’s real memory from one’s virtual memory. But is that really such a bad thing? “I’m already having this problem. I was watching an immersive video of Cuban music, that was pretty beautifully done, and by the end of the five-minute spot, I had the visceral experience that I was actually there. It’s just a very powerful way of experiencing content. Let me put it another way: 3D TVs were at the rabbit hole, and immersive video will take you down the rabbit hole into the other world.”
LA-based Source Sound, which has provided supervision and sound design on a number of Jaunt-produced cinematic VR experiences, including a virtual fashion show, a horror short and a Godzilla short film written and directed by Oscar-winning VFX artist Ian Hunter, as well as final Atmos audio mastering for the early immersive release Sir Paul McCartney Live, is ready for spacial mixes to come. That wasn’t initially the case.
“When Jaunt first got into this space three years ago, they went to Dolby to try to figure out the audio component,” says Source Sound owner/supervising sound designer/editor Tim Gedemer. “I got a call from Dolby, who told me about what Jaunt was doing, and the first thing I said was, ‘I have no idea what you are talking about!’ Whatever it is, I thought, there’s really no budget and I was dragging my feet. But I asked them to show me exactly what they were doing. I was getting curious at that point.”
After meeting the team at Jaunt, who strapped some VR goggles on him and showed him some footage, Gedemer was hooked. “It couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds in and I was just blown away. I took off the headset and said, ‘What the hell is this?! We have to do this right now.’ They could have reached out to a lot of people, but I was thrilled that we were able to help them by seizing the moment.”
Gedemer says Source Sound’s business has expanded in multiple directions in the past few years, and VR is still a significant part of the studio’s revenue. “People are often surprised when I tell them VR counts for about 15-20 percent of our business today,” he says. “It could be a lot more, but we’d have to allocate the studios differently first.”
With a background in mixing and designing sound for film and gaming and theatrical trailers, Gedemer and his studio have a very focused definition of immersive experiences, and it all includes spacial audio. “Stereo 360 video with mono audio is not VR. For us, there’s cinematic, live-action VR, then straight-up game development that can easily migrate into a virtual reality world and, finally, VR for live broadcast.” Mass adoption of VR won’t happen, he believes, until enterprise and job training applications jump on the bandwagon with entertainment. “I think virtual reality may also be a stopover before we get to a world where augmented reality is commonplace. It makes more sense to me that we’ll just overlay all this content onto our regular days, instead of escaping from one isolated experience to the next.”
For now, Source Sound’s VR work is completed in dedicated studios configured with gear for that purpose. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t migrate more into other studios, and we’re certainly evolving our systems to be dual-purpose,” he says. “About a year ago we were finally able to get a grip on the kinds of hardware and software we needed to really start coagulating this workflow. It was also clear from the beginning of our foray into VR that we needed to partner with manufacturers, like Dolby and Nokia. Both of those companies’ R&D divisions are on the front lines of VR in the cinematic and live broadcast space, with Dolby’s Atmos for VR and Nokia’s Ozo camera.”
What missing tools and technology have to be developed to achieve VR audio nirvana? “We delivered a wish list to Dolby, and I think we got about a quarter of the list,” he says. “But those guys have been awesome in helping us out. Still, it seems like just about every VR project that we do, we have to invent something to get us to the end. You definitely have to have an adventurous spirit if you want to play in this space.”
The work has already influenced his approach to more traditional audio projects, he says, and he now notices the lack of inter-spacial sound everywhere. “Everything out there is a boring rectangle of sound. It’s on my phone, on my TV, in the movie theater. I didn’t notice it as much before, but it really pops out at me now. The actual creative work of designing and mixing immersive sound has realigned the way I perceive it.”
Main Image: One of Hobo’s audio rooms, where the VR magic happens.
Beth Marchant has been covering the production and post industry for 21 years. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Studio/monthly magazine and the co-editor of StudioDaily.com. She continues to write about the industry.