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Google adds better audio to Cardboard's virtual reality

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Despite the ephemerality of its hardware, the Google Cardboard VR headset has become a major ongoing project for the company. Among other things, Cardboard now supports YouTube's 360-degree videos, the experimental Spotlight Stories, and an educational program called Expeditions. We learned yesterday that the company has appointed a head of virtual reality development. Today, Google is adding a new feature to the Cardboard platform itself: spatial audio, which produces more sophisticated and realistic soundscapes for VR experiences.

Spatial audio is exactly what it sounds like: audio that sounds like it's coming not just from different sides of your headphones, but from exact points. A telephone can convincingly ring behind you, for example, or birds can sing above. Google's new software development kit will let people making Google Cardboard experiences specify the positions of sounds, as well as the characteristics of their environments. If you hold the same conversation in a forest versus a spaceship, says Google VR product manager Nathan Martz, it would sound "fundamentally different" — and so would its virtual representation. Developers will be able to define the size of spaces and the materials they're made of, much like they might build a level in a video game.

This obviously isn't a change in Google's hardware, which is still a cardboard box with lenses, but it's a potentially important change. Pairing virtual images with equally compelling virtual sounds has been a major priority for companies like Oculus, which added spatial audio to one of its headset prototypes last year. Sound is a powerful way to suggest a setting, even when the graphics alongside it are simple — which, on a mobile phone, they often have to be. "Even though people tend to focus a lot on the visuals of VR, they'll start to focus more on the audio," says Martz. "I think we're going to see some really cool apps from developers."