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Will Virtual Reality Get Lost in the Uncanny Valley Of Sound?

Will Virtual Reality Get Lost in the Uncanny Valley Of Sound Inverse


If you know anything about robotics or CGI or have ever seen an animated Robert Zemeckis movie, you know about the “Uncanny Valley,” the dip in the relatability of manufactured beings as they progress from being representational to photorealistic. Fortunately for filmmakers, the visual lowland are relatively easy to avoid: Just film real life. But the geography of human reactions is complicated by virtual reality, which has more than one valley. According to acoustic engineer Francis Rumsey, truly immersive experiences will be difficult because the media has trained us to be comfortable with representational sound. When things get real, sound doesn’t.

Visuals get the front page (for obvious reasons), but we’re quietly entering an age of more advanced speaker technology. Binaural audio, for instance, puts a microphone close to each ear and drastically increases the numbers of loudspeaker in sound systems. Rumsey, the technical chair of the Audio Engineering Society and the director of sound consulting company Logophon, tells Inverse that this represents progress, but not a breakthrough. “In many cases what we would call the timbral quality of sound — that’s the sound of color, and what novices think of as sound quality — has not necessarily increased correspondingly,” he explains. “And that led me to wonder whether there was something rather similar to what has happened in the video animation field.”

Rumsey believes believes there is. He hasn’t seen the valley, but, while working with sophisticated virtual reality systems, he’s heard the wind blow through it. The best systems out there right now use surround sound or wave field synthesis systems, which use a large number of loudspeakers to simulate movement and the audio effects of environment. According to Rumsey, “the results are not as convincing as we’d hope them to be.”

The problem isn’t so much in our stars as in ourselves. In the past, traditional two channel stereo has served us well; it’s unsophisticated but hard to break and well-suited to being blasted at people looking in the same direction and not moving. The only time this sort of audio causes a problem when paired with traditional video is when it fails to run in parallel with the video. It becomes frustrating (or funny). But that problem is relatively easy to solve — it’s a matter of time not resonance.

Binaural audio and other virtual reality sound reproduction methods have the potential to be very good, “but also potentially very odd and disturbing if they’re not done absolutely perfectly.” 

Stashed in: Are You Not Entertained?, Hollywood, Virtual Reality!, Computer Graphics, Sounds!, Jaunt, George Lucas

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I believe this is why George Lucas worked on THX, and then Industrial Light and Magic, before getting back to making Star Wars movies. 

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