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Oculus is showing off great new 3D sound at CES, still no consumer edition

A new SDK will make spatialized audio an integral part of virtual reality

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Last year at CES, Oculus impressed us all with Crystal Cove, which would later become the second development kit of its Rift virtual reality headset. It's not doing anything nearly that big at CES 2015; its last major headset iteration, Crescent Bay, was unveiled last fall. But it is adding a new element that it only hinted at back then: spatialized audio, which does for sound what the Rift does for video.

Artists like Chris Milk have done impressive audio work in VR, using complex microphone setups aimed at letting you feel exactly where sound is coming from. A new Oculus software development kit, which the company is announcing today, will let VR developers do this through software instead. Once they pinpoint the location of a sound, the Rift's built-in headphones (or any other headphones you plug in) will track the wearer's head motion and respond to it.

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At its booth, Oculus has reworked last year's Crescent Bay demo with the new SDK and a few new scenes. It's difficult to compare audio from something you've seen three times, four months apart, but it's undeniably cool: you'll hear bird songs overhead, or the creak of a submarine around you, in a way that most current VR experiences can't even get close to.

Besides the audio, Crescent Bay isn't much changed from its last outing in September, but it's still new to the vast majority of people — this is the first time Oculus is showing it in public. It's also undergone some relatively minor hardware tweaks, although we didn't get a close enough look the first time around to pinpoint most of them.

It's the first time I've worn a headset that wasn't dragging my head down with it

Oculus barely let me touch Crescent Bay in September, but this time, I'm struck by how light it is (the company did confirm that it's slimmed down slightly since then.) It's far lighter than the Gear VR and less top-heavy than the DK2, with a plate on the back that balances its weight. For maybe the first time, I was able to wear a VR display without feeling like my head was being dragged towards the floor.

Of course, given that nobody can buy Crystal Cove, this isn't much good outside Oculus' own showcases. And CEO Brendan Iribe is being typically coy about when a consumer edition might be released, or whether we'll be seeing more prototypes before one is announced. But he did confirm that Oculus is locking down elements of a final design and trying to build a supply chain that can handle its production. Given how many companies are dipping their toes into VR video at CES, the pressure is definitely building.