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What does the future of virtual reality sound like?

CalArts student Sara Suarez walks her classmates and her instructor through a virtual reality environment that she designed the sound for. Carla Javier/KPCC

Film directing MFA candidate Sara Suarez puts on an Oculus VR headset, and is suddenly transported out of a dark California Institute of the Arts classroom and into an even darker Jurassic jungle scene.

Somewhere behind her, she hears the loud buzz of a bug, so she turns her whole body around to go look at it, and the sound moves with her, like it would in real life. 

"The birds and the crickets and frogs and things are located in different places in the landscape," she explained. "So when you turn your head, you can hear them turning."

It's all part of her final project for CalArts' Sound for Virtual Reality class in the institute's School of Film Video. She designed the soundscape in ProTools, an audio editing software. 

When she and her fellow MFA students from across disciplines, including theater, sound design, and music, discuss the final projects in class, they use complex and technical terms: head-locking, stereo, reverb, and attenuation.

But, as Suarez explains it, it's more about the concepts and less about the technology.

"You can translate that – no matter what kind of audio hardware or software, or fancy VR headsets that you're using, you can still do something really powerful and creative, even with a lo-fi set up," she said.

You can experience a similar project, with immersive sound, by watching the video below in Chrome, while wearing headphones:

But learning how to design sound for VR is about more than just designing sound for VR, according to the course's instructor, Nathan Ruyle.

Whether or not VR becomes the next big thing, Ruyle says the lessons learned in interactive sound design can have applications in augmented reality, theater, movies on the big screen, and even as more people watch movies through Netflix and Hulu on their personal devices. 

"I think there's the potential in this way of working that we can actually if we put our audience in headphones, they can actually get something that approximates a theatrical experience," he said.

Ruyle, who aside from teaching at CalArts also owns a sound design and production studio, said he believes the concepts of sound design will be vital to the next new tech.

"Sound is going to be a really important part of making it work because sound is actually, secretly, the way that we experience the world," he explained. "You don't realize how important it is until it's gone."