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Harman Wants to Use Robotic Speakers to Make VR Sound More Real

Get ready for robotic speakers to whizz around in your living room while you are having fun in virtual reality: Samsung subsidiary Harman got a patent awarded this week to map sounds from virtual reality (VR) games and experiences to one or more robotic speakers.

The patented technology is meant to deal with a shortcoming of traditional speaker systems for VR: They just don’t work that well for spatial audio.

“Audio content that is outputted via static audio devices may not accurately represent the virtual environment and/or virtual objects included in the virtual environment,” the patent reads in part. “For example, sounds outputted by stationary speakers may not accurately reflect the distance, direction, and/or motion between the user and a virtual object included in the virtual environment.”

As a remedy for this, Harman is looking to map VR soundscapes to robotic speakers, and then move them around in a room. According to the patent, this could reproduce a wide range of acoustic phenomenons, including objects emitting sounds themselves, as well as walls that sound can bounce off, physical obstructions that can absorb sound, and more.

“The audio that the user hears matches more closely with user expectations for the audio based on what the user sees in the virtual reality content,” according to the patent. “Consequently, the audio facilitates a more immersive virtual reality experience.”

However, the system is not necessarily meant to reproduce every sound. One example mentioned in the patent is inner monologue in narrative VR experiences. From the patent: “Speech from a character may be more suitable for output via a robotic speaker (…) than speech corresponding to an inner monologue from the user representation, because a sense of space and distance is generally not required for an inner monologue.”

The patent goes into some detail about ways to track the position of robotic speakers in the room, and ways to position the speakers themselves. Turns out these devices don’t necessarily need to drive around on four wheels, with Harman researchers envisioning anything from one-wheelers to “a hovering mobility platform based on co-axial rotors, multi-rotors (e.g., quadcopters), or vertical gas jet based propulsion mobility platforms.”

Does this mean that VR users will soon have an army of speaker drones buzzing around their heads? Not necessarily. First, it’s worth pointing out that companies patent technologies all the time that don’t end up becoming real products. One could also make the case that a lot of these issues could be solved much easier with smart spatial sound and a good pair of headphones.

However, as location-based virtual reality evolves to become a sort of high-tech amusement park, it’s easy to imagine that companies like The Void may one day not just use physical props, but also spatially mapped audio playing from real speakers to create immersive entertainment experiences. And who knows: Maybe this future will even involve robotic speakers that reposition themselves to make virtual worlds sound more real.

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