The Valve Index VR headset incorporates a number of innovations, one of which is the distinctive off-ear speakers instead of headphones or earbuds. [Emily Ridgway] of Valve shared the design and evolution of this unusual system in a deep dive into the elements of the Index headset. [Emily] explains exactly what they were trying to achieve, how they determined what was and wasn’t important to deliver good sound in a VR environment, and what they were able to accomplish.

First prototype, a proof-of-concept that validated the basic idea and benefits of off-ear audio delivery.

Early research showed that audio was extremely important to providing a person with a good sense of immersion in a VR environment, but delivering a VR-optimized audio experience involved quite a few interesting problems that were not solved with the usual solutions of headphones or earbuds. Headphones and earbuds are optimized to deliver music and entertainment sounds, and it turns out that these aren’t quite up to delivering on everything Valve determined was important in VR.

The human brain is extremely good at using subtle cues to determine whether sounds are “real” or not, and all kinds of details come into play. For example, one’s ear shape, head shape, and facial geometry all add a specific tonal signature to incoming sounds that the brain expects to encounter. It not only helps to localize sounds, but the brain uses their presence (or absence) in deciding how “real” sounds are. Using ear buds to deliver sound directly into ear canals bypasses much of this, and the brain more readily treats such sounds as “not real” or even seeming to come from within one’s head, even if the sound itself — such as footsteps behind one’s back — is physically simulated with a high degree of accuracy. This and other issues were the focus of multiple prototypes and plenty of testing. Interestingly, good audio for VR is not all about being as natural as possible. For example, low frequencies do not occur very often in nature, but good bass is critical to delivering a sense of scale and impact, and plucking emotional strings.

“Hummingbird” prototype using BMR drivers. Over twenty were made and lent to colleagues to test at home. No one wanted to give them back.

The first prototype demonstrated the value of testing a concept as early as possible, and it wasn’t anything fancy. Two small speakers mounted on a skateboard helmet validated the idea of off-ear audio delivery. It wasn’t perfect: the speakers were too heavy, too big, too sensitive to variation in placement, and had poor bass response. But the results were positive enough to warrant more work.

In the end, what ended up in the Index headset is a system that leans heavily on Balanced Mode Radiator (BMR) speaker design. Cambridge Audio has a short and sweet description of how BMR works; it can be thought of as a hybrid between a traditional pistonic speaker drivers and flat-panel speakers, and the final design was able to deliver on all the truly important parts of delivering immersive VR audio in a room-scale environment.

As anyone familiar with engineering and design knows, everything is a tradeoff, and that fact is probably most apparent in cutting-edge technologies. For example, when Valve did a deep dive into field of view (FOV) in head-mounted displays, we saw just how complex balancing different features and tradeoffs could be.



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