Google's Cardboard Virtual Reality Updated With Spatial Audio

The virtual reality space is really beginning to heat up, and Google knows it needs to move fast if it wants to remain competitive. The search giant released an update to the Google Cardboard SDK today that should go a long way to improving the virtrual reality experience. Moving forward, developers will be able to move beyond stereo sound and create 3D sound canvasses that more effectively envelope users.

Google revised the Cardboard SDKs for both Unity and Android to support spatial audio. Most any Android smartphone user with a Cardboard viewer and stereo headphones will be able to steep themselves in new worlds both visually and acoustically.

Google says spatial sound lets Cardboard apps generate sound the way way human ears percieve it. For example, it merges the physics behind the location and angle of listener's head with the sound source and ambient acoustics. Sounds that are generated in the right side of the VR environment with reach the left ear with a slight delay, and higher frequencies will be reduced to mimic how the human head absorbs sound as the waves wash over it. Moreover, the SDK is able to parse how different materials and spaces impact sound. For example, conversations held in an elevator will sound different than those that take place on the edge of the Grand Canyon. 

Most any modern Android smartphone should be able to generate spatial soundscapes without issue. The SDK takes into account how mobile CPUs function by computing real-time audio in a separate thread. This removes audio processing from the main CPU to lighten the load. Developers will also be able to control the fidelity of each sound, which means important sounds can be given more processing power, while background/environmental sounds can be given lower CPU priority. CPU optimization is critical for several reasons: 1. It helps prevent battery drain; 2. Keeps thermals down; and 3. Keeps the experience running smoothly for the end user. 

As noted, there are two dfferent variants of the SDK, one for Unity developers and one strictly for native Android developers. The Unity SDK covers Android, iOS, OS X, and Windows and includes a comprehensive set of components for creating unique soundscapes. Native Android de elopers gain their own Java API for simulating spatial sounds and environments. 

Sample Android apps, for reference, are available here. Google also has lots of documentation here on the Google Cardboard developer site with directions on how to properly bring spatial sound to your VR apps. 

Google is taking VR seriously. The company has reformed its Google X lab, which is now to be called simply X. The business unit's goal is to imnprove VR in the face of competition from Oculus, HTC, Samsung, and others. Google hopes developers put its new tools to use. 

Eric Zeman I am a journalist who covers the mobile telecommunications industry. I freelance for ProgrammableWeb and other online properties.

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