17.07.16

Letter from America: E3 Signals the Game is On

Heiss_Mikey VR 3
Michael Heiss tries on Sony PlayStation VR.

In preparation for my annual visit to E3 (formally known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo), typically held each June in Los Angeles, I pack a set of good earplugs.

Although this isn’t an audio-related show, playing loud audio, particularly at the Sony and Microsoft press events, makes E3 the one show where ears can be highly sensitive to sound. I forgot my pair yet again when I was at E3 last month, and was quickly reminded as to why.

This is relevant to us on a variety of levels, as it speaks to a number of things that are important, even at a show where someone from the custom design and installation world would seem be an oddity in a crowd composed of tens of thousands of gamers.

There is significant hardware-based news from E3, but let’s first go into what my forgetting the earplugs meant. Yes, E3 and its attendant events are loud, but more importantly, they were loud across the spectrum. One would expect the game play audio at high SPL, but E3 reminds one of the importance bass. I’ve been at music and sports events at both USC’s Galen Center, where Xbox held their event, as well as the massive Shrine Auditorium where Sony held their PlayStation event. I can’t recall an event before either of them where the show or presentation had not only as much bass, but bass that was as well controlled and integrated into the main channels.

Why is this important? Simple. While it is natural to use familiar test discs or movies to calibrate main channel and sub levels, our E3 demo experience reinforces the power and importance of bass when games are the program source. Indeed, for an installation, be it a grand scale home theatre room, a family room or a gamer’s den or bedroom, take special care to make certain that there is bass reproduction and that it is properly calibrated/integrated.

We needed our earplugs to tamp down the overpowering SPLs for the demos, but it was another aspect of audio from E3 that raised questions about audio. As we will shortly detail, the exponential growth of VR products raised some interesting questions and choices. Remember, the mission of VR is to isolate the player from their physically perceptible environment with the video provided by the headset. As to the audio, that’s another story.  

Heiss_PS VR Eco

PlayStation VR is more than just the headset. As this E3 display showed, there are a few component parts to install and configure.

Amongst the five major VR headset systems in, or destined for the market this year, only Oculus Rift has audio reproduction as an integral part of the system thanks to a removable on-ear headset and mic. Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation VR comes with a headset, but it is not attached to the VR unit. Oculus Rift’s cousin, the phone-based Samsung Gear VR, HTC’s Vive and Google’s phone-based Cardboard require that the user supply their own headset or earphones.

As VR products become an important part of the home entertainment ecosystems you provision on behalf of your clients, while the video side of things is part and parcel of the headset, how the audio is played back is something you will have to increasingly consider.

With all of the devices save for Vive, the user will and should be seated unless there is a specially designed rig that properly harnesses the player so that they do not fall over. However, as head movement is critical to the VR game play, consider if the headphones should be wired with enough slack to allow free movement or if they are wireless.

Each of the headsets is different, which means that the selection of the headset must consider how it will fit on or over the headset. Another consideration with headphones used for VR play is if a mic is needed. Sometimes it is integral to the headset, sometimes it will use the phone, and sometimes it is external. Form and fit are thus paramount when fitting the proper headphones for VR applications.

Why not use existing audio playback in the room? Good question, and there are two answers. First, depending on the VR system, the audio may come from a gaming PC, a game console or a phone. Just what you need, another connection to deal with. Not recommended. More important, the close in, near field immersive audio of a VR game works best with headphones that block out ambient noise, so using the room audio just isn’t recommended.

Heiss_Xbox S w COntrol

Microsoft’s Xbox One S drew large crowns to their E3 stand.

That said, a word of warning: VR is, by definition, immersive from both an audio and video standpoint. Thus, make certain that there is some type of annunciator to signal any fire or smoke alarms. Or, if appropriate, something to signal door or gate entry requests or phones. More about the environment further down the road.

Back to E3, it is incumbent on us to highlight the main stories from the three major console brands. Nintendo is the easiest to report on. There was no news at E3 about their next-gen console.  All we know is that “Nintendo NX” is scheduled for release in March 2017. That’s it.

However, Nintendo did have a large exhibit space, almost totally dedicated to the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It will be the part and parcel of the NX roll out, but will also be available for the current Wii U when it arrives.

As to the other two giants, Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation, both had the usual announcements about new games from first- and third-party publishers. Save for that, the news from them couldn’t be more different.

Although Microsoft demoed HoloLens last year, there was scant news about VR hardware. Rather, the hardware news from Microsoft was the pending availability of a new version of Xbox: Xbox One S, available next month. While basic game play is the same, there are major hardware changes that should interest you. The new console is 40% smaller, and the power supply is built in; no more “brick” to deal with. HDR is supported for games and optical and streaming playback.

The latter is where the really important news is. Xbox One S will not only be able to playback 4K content from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, its optical player is UltraHD Blu-ray. With a starting price of $299 USD it will be the least expensive such player, $100 less than the nearest competitive unit here in the US. That, even for the non-gamer, makes it a compelling product. The full range of models and (pre-Brexit impact) pricing will be:

•          500GB: $299 USD/£249/€299
•          1TB: $349 USD/£299/€349
•          2TB: $399 USD/£349/€399

Heiss_VR MeditFurther down the road, for “Holiday, 2017” Microsoft will launch a premier, advanced console that will complement, not replace Xbox One S. With claimed GPU power of  six teraflops for true 4K gaming and high-fidelity VR, this should be interesting. However, we don’t expect to hear more about it until next year’s E3.

Sony was rumoured to also unveil an updated console, presumably with 4K gaming and possibly UltraHD Blu-ray. Sony admitted that such as product was coming, but was otherwise mum on the details. A release within this “selling season” would typically have been promoted at E3, but we heard little more.

Rather, the attention in the world of PlayStation was on Sony VR. Launching in October $399 USD/£349/€399/¥44,900 JPY. The 960x1080 per-eye OLED headset is accompanied by an external control unit that connects to the PS4, an HDMI and USB cable, and a pair of stereo headphones. As you include PlayStation VR in a quote, note that it requires a PlayStation camera ($59USD) and a pair of Move controller wands ($99 USD/pair) is strongly recommended if the client does not already have those with their console. Thus be forewarned that this may be an expensive proposition.

That said, if one is into gaming the price is well worth it. We had a chance to try it out first hand following the press event. Let’s just say that the game play and video/audio immersion was beyond convincing and, to our mind, easier to play than with an Oculus Rift. Indeed, it was so good that we were knocked out of our seat. Literally!

When the “bad guys” threw a grenade at the car is was in, the video and sound made me reflectively lean back and out of the way such that I fell back off a couch such that I almost knocked over the backdrop. Remember what was said above about sitting down when playing a VR game. DO IT!

Thus, with another E3 in the books, it is easy to say that there are a couple of takeaways. Is the client into VR? It’s PlayStation or a phone or computer-based system for them. While you are at it, pay special attention to how they hear, as well as how they watch. Does the player also want to add 4K and HDR playback? For now that points them to Xbox One S.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is that E3 once again re-enforced the notion that console and PC gaming are an integral part of the home entertainment world. The more you know about them, the more you and your business will profit. Game’s on!

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid.