February has seen the reveal of a new hardware competitor in the VR market, the French company Lynx with their new R-1 standalone headset. Lynx calls its new release a HMD for enterprise, a possibly opportunistic move since Oculus announced the end of business support for the GO devices, and its monstrous Snapdragon XR2 chip has certainly got people talking about the mighty processing power that standalone headsets have the potential to bear. That said, one repeated statement about the new addition to the VR-market is that audio quality is below par. The R-1 uses similar inbuilt speakers to the Rift S, GO and Quest, and has perhaps finally started a real debate on manufacturers’ compromise on good quality audio experiences (even though out good friends on Reddit have been complaining about this for yonks!).
To be honest, while it seems like such an oversight to not ensure great audio quality, my issue does not lie too much with the sound through the hardware. My issue is very specifically with the hardware itself, and going back to the lovely Reddit forums it’s clear that most people perceive the Rift CV1 audio as better that the Quest and Rift S mostly because of the inclusion of physical headphones (in spite of the audio coming out of those headphones being just awful). I have been reading a book recently on audio for the new realities by Stephan Schütze that pretty much says what I’m thinking (and Oculus and Co are not).
“Worn correctly, a VR headset should cover the eyes and prevent light from the real world from entering…[otherwise] it can detract from the feeling of total immersion…Using closed-back headphones that completely covers the ears is the best way to isolate the audience from the real world and help replace their sensory input with virtual input only” – Stephan Schütze (go buy his book, it’s great)
Before you start, I know the R-1 is a combines VR and AR headset. In AR we do have a different situation as we want to introduce virtual sounds into a real world, as opposed to removing real world sound. But! I hope the R-1 will be the start of a push against these terrible audio solutions on our favourite VR headsets.
Back to Schütze!
“Strapping yourself into a VR rig that simulates a giant mecha cockpit only to be able to hear your refrigerator humming…instantly breaks any sense of immersion no matter how good the graphics are.”
Lynx even say they see their R-1 being of use for military training, in which case Schütze’s point is just so valid! How can you provide accurate simulations in military training, or at enterprise trade shows too, when all you can hear is everything around you?
The funny thing is that almost every manufacturer of VR headsets is at fault here, except for the ones that provide no audio solution at all. Fancy that, the best solution is to not provide any solution. The Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift S both use inbuilt speakers in their headband thingy, which honestly does provide some good localisation (very surprisingly) but absolutely no immersion unless you play VR in an anechoic chamber, a fallout shelter or the moon. The Valve Index calls its solution off-ear headphones (ahhhh that’s the wrong direction Valve!!!), but effectively gives users a pair of headphones like the Rift CV-1 which is obviously better than a headband speaker but still sucks for overall immersion because it blocks little to no real world sound.
So why build this way? I can think of three ways: cost (surprise!), form factor and sociability. I’m not even going to talk about cost, but we all know as audio people if a budget is tight then the audio is going to get booted out the window faster than you can say yeeeeeet (which varies in duration depending on your commitment to the word). Headphone attachments are clearly bulky, and the clip on headphones on the Index and Rift CV-1 somewhat improve what would otherwise be a lot of wires and a lot of things strapped to your head. But sociability, I believe, is the most justifiable reason that manufacturers have when making these immersion-breaking solutions. The current HMD builds achieve this need for sociability, but also completely kills an experience for the more committed player. What’s funny is only the committed gamers tend to own a VR headset! Except in exceptional (Beat Saber) circumstances, why oh why are you planning to have lengthy conversations with friends while using a piece of immersive technology? The literal goal of this stuff is to immerse you in the virtual world… It’s like swimming underwater and complaining that you got too wet.
What can we do about it? In my opinion we just don’t offer a solution unless it’s a commitment to the production of quality over-ear headphone attachments. By including rubbish speakers, a player will use these speakers and complain about how rubbish they are instead of using their own headphones. PSVR headsets somewhat grasp this concept, as unless headphones are used the audio will play out of television speakers through the PS4. There are no inbuilt audio solutions in PSVR. This makes wayyyyyy more sense, if you’re playing VR party-games everyone can hear the TV speakers. If you’re playing alone you can plug in your own headphones and be fully immersed. Perhaps to move from console to PC may not give as preferable results, but I personally can’t see why not being that the original HTC Vive is still commonplace in the VR world and requires players to use their own headphones.
I have seen some recent Sennheiser clip-on solutions for the Rift S and, while the audio quality will definitely be made better by a big-name audio company, the headphones themselves are still on-ear and miss the idea completely of what it takes to give the best audio experience in VR.
Or maybe I’m just spouting rubbish, and everybody loves listening to immersive experiences through what are effectively mobile phone speakers?