Know your own ears with new technology from Maryland audio tech firm VisiSonics

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The College Park, Maryland company is developing 3D audio software for more accurate sound in everything from video games to aircraft.

For VisiSonics CEO and cofounder Ramani Duraiswami, humans’ ability to adapt and customize our hearing is something that dates all the way back to the caveman days. But it’s a skill we’ve carried all through the ages.

“We have a certain expectation for peak performance to have very natural hearing,” Duraiswami told Technical.ly. “If we are at a busy party, we are able to focus on a single conversation even though there are hundreds of noises attacking us from many directions.”

VisiSonics, a 3D spatial audio technology company based in College Park, Maryland, has spent the last decade working to adapt audio tech to fit the IRL expectations of sound.

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UMD computer scientist’s VisiSonics raises $3.5M to amplify 3D sound technology

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The funding round includes a $500,000 investment from the University System of Maryland Momentum Fund. Its name might not be on the label, but the company’s technology is behind the spatial audio in virtual reality and gaming.

When it comes to virtual reality, truly immersing someone in another space requires a lot of things to be just right.

For one, there’s a question of visuals. The objects have to be three-dimensional enough to look like they’re in front of a player, and a character has to be able to move around to see those objects to the right or left.

It’s not just a question of look, but also feeling like you’re somewhere else. That’s where sound plays a role. If a bee is flying to the right, it has to sound like it is buzzing to the right. Getting this “3D sound” right is its own area of technology development growing up around VR, and it has applications that go well beyond the headset.

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This University of Maryland spinoff just hit the market with its 3-D sound technology

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Ramani Duraiswami is the first person to admit that you have to try his technology to truly understand what it is.

Duraiswami is the founder of VisiSonics, a company spun out of the University of Maryland that works with three-dimensional sound.

Based on name alone, 3-D sound is confusing.

But think of it this way: Instead of listening to music through earbuds and hearing it in both ears, imagine that when using a virtual reality helmet, you would experience sound from all sides of your brain — making it seem like a bird is flying over top of you, or someone is walking behind you.

VisiSonics’ technology is being licensed by Oculus, a California-based virtual reality company that is owned by Facebook. Oculus just released the Rift this week, the first high-end consumer VR headset to hit the open market. VisiSonics’ 3-D sound technology is major piece of the headset.

Preorders of the headset sold out quickly in February, and orders already started getting backlogged when they went live on Monday. Amazon’s website says an order placed on Wednesday wouldn’t ship until April 23.

The headset alone costs $599, but you need a high-end PC with a large amount of processing power to use it. An Oculus Rift bundle that comes with a PC powerful enough to support the headset starts at $1,599.

Oculus users can transport themselves into a number of virtual spaces through the headset, from VR video on apps like YouTube, to video games produced by major companies.

The Rift is the only consumer headset hitting the market this year to be using VisiSonics’ technology — but companies like Sony and HTC have their own mass-market headsets releasing later this year.

When using a VR helmet, VisiSonics’ technology will allow you to hear the sound from all angles.

“Our way of thinking was that we wanted to understand how sound in the real world goes from a source location to your ears,” he said. “We wanted to replicate the way in which sound bounces off walls, bounces off materials. It comes to your ears, and it bounces inside your ear canal, down your body and heads to your brain.”

Duraiswami’s company has grown to eight employees since it officially spun off from the university in 2012, but he is still a professor at the college and VisiSonics is based out of Maryland’s startup lab.

The technology dates back as far as 12 years ago, when Duraiswami began experimenting with it at the university. He struck gold in 2014 when the company officially signed the licensing deal with Oculus. Duraiswami couldn’t discuss the specifics of the deal.

“It came about when we met them at the [Game Developer’s Conference] and showed them our demo,” Duraiswami said. “At that point, they had not yet been bought by Facebook and they were interested in our tech.”

Oculus’ co-founder, Brendan Iribe, graduated from Maryland, and recently donated $31 million to construct a new computer science and innovation center on campus — construction on which will begin by the end of April.

Now that the Oculus Rift is out, what’s next for VisiSonics?

Duraiswami said the company will look to make deals with other headset makers in the future, but they’re also developing their own products to eventually hit the market.

For example, a program that will help blind people learn to cross the road based on sound alone, and a device that will capture 3-D sound and play it back as it was intended to be heard.

“We want to be the audio solution for all the headset makers and the content producers who all help to make the VR experience better,” Duraiswami said. “We just want to make VR audio as good as audio is in the real world.”

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For VR to be truly immersive, it needs convincing sound to match

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Personalized 3D audio delivers the best results.

I’m staring at a large iron door in a dimly lit room. “Hey,” a voice says, somewhere on my right. “Hey buddy, you there?” It’s a heavily masked humanoid. He proceeds to tell me that my sensory equipment is down and will need to be fixed. Seconds later, the heavy door groans. A second humanoid leads the way into the spaceship where my suit will be repaired.

Inside a wide room with bright spotlights I notice an orange drilling machine. “OK, before we start, I need to remove the panel from the back of your head,” says the humanoid. I hear the whirring of a drill behind me. I squirm and reflexively raise my shoulders. The buzzing gets louder, making the hair on the nape of my neck stand up.

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VisiSonics’ RealSpace 3D Audio Software Licensed by Oculus for Virtual Reality

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VisiSonics Corporation, the leading supplier of 3D audio software, announces today that its RealSpace™ 3D Audio engine has been licensed by Oculus, a virtual reality technology company and creator of the Oculus Rift.Oculus announced the deal at Oculus Connect, the company’s first developer conference, in Los Angeles, Calif.

RealSpace™ 3D Audio enables the virtual placement of sound anywhere in a 3D space with pinpoint accuracy, creating the perception of real source direction, distance, depth, and movement relative to a listener when heard through standard stereo headphones. It re-creates the auditory ambience of an environment, creating a completely immersive audio experience.

“Audio is an essential ingredient for immersive virtual reality,” said Brendan Iribe, CEO at Oculus. “The technology that the VisiSonics team has developed is a great start towards developing a fully-featured VR audio solution, and we’re incredibly excited to be licensing their work to drive VR forward.”

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