Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: diminishing returns. Whenever there’s a new console lurking around the corner, you can guarantee you’ll stumble upon at least one spoilsport, cynically proclaiming that video games have reached their peak. The insinuation is often that, even with all of the computational power in the world, it’s difficult to deliver an experience noticeably superior to the ones we’ve already got. But I tend to find this argument short-sighted, because it seems to centre on the idea that only visuals improve on a generational basis, when in reality you simply couldn’t deliver a world as vast and richly detailed as, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn on the PlayStation 3.
It also ignores the fact that new hardware tends to innovate in other areas, and I’ve been particularly excited by Sony’s decision to spotlight 3D audio in the PlayStation 5. You may recall all the way back in January that the manufacturer acquired multiformat middleware organisation Audiokinetic, which specialises in software solutions for all kinds of virtual sound systems. At the time, the company’s founder Martin Klein explained that his firm was “excited about the opportunity to contribute to SIE at a platform level”, and now we know why.
As confirmed by system architect Mark Cerny in an interview with Wired, the PS5 will include a custom hardware chip designed to process 3D audio specifically. This, we suspect, will be similar to the type of technology included in PlayStation VR’s cumbersome Processing Unit, and it will benefit all kinds of audio hardware – although headphone wearers will get the best experience overall. In the aforementioned report, the Marble Madness man suggested he was frustrated by the lack of audio innovation between the PS3 and PS4, and he hinted that Sony has gone the extra mile in order to rectify this.
During an investor relations presentation this week, the Japanese giant said that the future of PlayStation is being built with two words in mind: immersive and seamless. Anyone who’s used PSVR will know just how much audio positioning feeds into the idea of “presence”. For example, we recently went on a tour of London Studio, and it told us that during the development of Blood & Truth’s shooting gallery minigames, its ambition was for players to be able to complete them blindfolded. “You should be able to hear where the targets are,” a gameplay designer informed us.
This is the difference between 3D audio and basic panning. If you’re not familiar with the idea, then there’s a very famous YouTube video which is well worth experiencing. In it, you’re cast as a customer in a barber shop, and the action takes place all around you. Close your eyes and you can quite literally sense where sounds are coming from; your brain builds a picture of everything that’s happening around you, in all dimensions, without you even needing to use your eyes. It’s incredibly immersive, and when accompanied by visuals, it heightens the impact of a given scene.
I think this kind of technology definitely excels in virtual reality, where turning your head alters the position of all the sounds that you’re hearing – but it can be powerful in a more traditional experience, too. Imagine being able to more accurately pinpoint the direction of an enemy’s footsteps in a first-person shooter like Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege – or how much drama it could add to a third-person horror title like The Last of Us: Part II. There are already a handful of PS4 titles like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End which support the technology, but as Cerny himself says, “the dream is to show how dramatically different the audio experience can be when we apply significant amounts of hardware horsepower to it”.
And this is something worth getting excited over. Video games are inherently a visual medium, and so our minds immediately leap to the graphics when we begin to think about new hardware. But there’s going to be more to the PS5 than its looks, and so I’m just as excited to hear what the console can do as I am to see it with my eyes. It’s really exciting to learn that Sony wants to innovate in this often overlooked area, and as someone who’s been fascinated by 3D audio long before the ASMR craze kicked off, I really can’t wait to see how this helps to improve the immersion of next-gen games.
Are you excited for the potential 3D audio will enable on the PS5? Do you think sound is an underrated aspect of gaming? Hear all around you in the comments section below.