Bringing the REAL to Virtual Reality

Adam Pleiman
December 3, 2021

ith the real Matrix in the not so distant future, how can we make this apocalyptic deathtrap sound like the life we once had?

Well, the end is near. One of the biggest and most influential tech companies wants to create an alternate reality that will allow us to exist in a completely new digital plane of existence. In their own words “You’re in the experience, not just looking at it.”  Think about that the next time an inappropriate post from a distant creepy uncle shows up in your feed (looking forward to that level of immersion...).

Regardless, it's on its way and there is nothing you can do about it because Meta has $159 Billion (with a “B”) and enough info about you to pummel you into submission. So, someday soon you’ll find yourself dawning a VR headset, digital glasses, or connected contact lenses if you like it or not.

But the only way this is going to work is if it’s believable.

I am sitting outside at a table. The wind rustles the leaves of the tree behind me, music plays softly from my house in front of me, and the ice in my water settles as it slowly melts from the sunlight. This is my current reality, outside on a beautiful autumn day. What makes this a believable reality is not only seeing the ice settle, but hearing it. Not only hearing it, but being able to place it to the location of the sound. AND not only can I place the location of the sound, but the reflections of the sound bouncing off the objects around me are also processed by my brain, painting a picture of the size of the space in which I am. This combination of connections creates the reality - it makes the setting believable. 

In our virtual worlds, we will be striving to create a convincing space, a convincing interaction, or a convincing experience. This has been done for years in gaming engines and they continue to innovate bringing the experience’s believability higher and higher. Even Facebook itself purchased spacial audio technology and released it for free to the public to empower content creators to publish for VR and spacial panning years ago, but what will be happening soon is the opening of an entire new market for innovation and collaboration. The understanding of how it feels real is going to rest on the development of the visual and the believability of the sound. 

In our current environment, we are bound by these pesky boundaries of physics. We only have so much square footage, the walls are flat and they echo, the air conditioning hum is annoying, the neighbors won’t turn down their music… the list goes on. Not to mention, if we want to have specific music playing somewhere we have to invest in the right size speakers for the specific room and find a place to stash them.

Looking at the virtual worlds, we can create believable reality without the physical need to accommodate the hardware. We can create the perfect blend of wind, leaf rustle, and ambient sound… if we include it as part of our strategy. 

In the real world, when we don’t focus on our environment’s sound as a strategy we still have the luxury of being in the real world - with real ambience, above ground, and sunlight melting our ice. On the other hand, in the virtual world when there is no sound, there really is are in a void. There is going to have to be a strategy behind creating how your space and interaction sounds because there is nothing in place when you move in. Heck, there are going to have to be soundscapes that sound like quiet stores because hearing absolutely nothing feels extremely unnerving.

What an opportunity we have to start from nothing and build an experience without the confines of the natural world. I’ll still keep my healthy amount of skepticism, privacy, and ethics about me when wading into the space, but the inevitability of the future feels like a guarantee.

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