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Binaural audio is returning from obscurity to make virtual reality more awesome

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

You're probably unfamiliar with binaural audio, a technology that dates back all the way to the late 1800s but, for a variety of reasons, fell by the wayside while mono and then stereo sound became audio industry standards. But binaural audio is now experiencing a revival because it's uniquely suited for a very modern technology: virtual reality.

Binaural recordings are designed to pick up sound exactly the way human ears perceive it. They're made with specialized equipment: two microphones placed on either side of a stand or dummy head, sometimes embedded inside ear-shaped appendages on that head. The effect is stunning — binaural audio is able to recreate a sound field so the listener feels like they were actually there when the recording was made. The catch is that it only works with headphones, although people are currently working on ways to support external speakers.

Do you see the connection? Binaural audio does for sound what virtual reality does for visuals. Oculus VR licensed technology from RealSpace3D for the built-in headphones in Crescent Bay, the latest Oculus Rift prototype, and the software development kit for Sony's Project Morpheus VR headset includes a custom binaural audio solution.

"3D audio adds to the feeling of presence that we strive so hard to achieve with the visuals in VR," said Dr. Richard Marks, senior director of research and development at Sony Computer Entertainment America, in an interview with The Verge. "When sound is perceived to come from the same direction as a visual stimulus, the credibility of the virtual experience is greatly increased. While purely visual VR experiences can be made, adding 3D audio greatly magnifies the impact and depth of a VR experience."

The proof is in the pudding: Check out the video above from The Verge to experience binaural audio for yourself. Then head over to the site for a report about binaural audio's history and current renaissance.

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