Eden River Creator Aaron Lemke Talks About His VR Experience and RealSpace 3D Audio

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RealSpace: The VR industry is a new one, and is attracting creative individuals from many different industries. Please tell us a little bit about your background, and where you are coming from?

Aaron: I grew up playing in bands in Austin, Texas, drums, guitar and keyboards mostly. I was always interested in games but never thought I would be able to make them. I studied Psychology at UT Austin with hopes of becoming a neuroscientist. The rise of independent games and the availability of great tools like Unity inspired me to try my hand at game design. I threw myself fully into designing traditional monitor games, taught myself to code… Then the Rift came out and I abandoned the other monitor games I was working on and started making VR experiences.

RealSpace: There is a great photo of you on the Unello Design website, surrounded by art, literature and musical instruments. It seems as though you are an exceptionally creative person, and have a well-rounded approach to your process. Is there something or someone that you see as an important influence on your work or on your process?

Aaron: I’m influenced by many different artists and thinkers who take a multidisciplinary approach to their work. People like Jaron Lanier, Ben Franklin, Elon Musk, John Lasseter, and Walt Disney to name a few. For better or for worse, my own curiosity has driven me to this way of thinking. I like to know how things work, so in game design that means learning every single part of the process.

One of the upsides of knowing how to make music along with knowing how to code or make 3d models or do sound design is that if you are ever stumped by an especially hard bit of code or a melody that’s not quite right, you can always switch to one of the other tasks. More often than not, just taking a step back and thinking about something else for a while helps the solution become clear.

 

“I’ve always thought VR should be a tool for transcendence.” -Aaron Lemke

RealSpace: What informed your decision to make a VR experience focusing on relaxation?

Aaron: I created Eden River shortly after the Rift DK1 launched. Before getting a Rift, I had envisioned VR experiences as being slow-paced and awe inspiring. I’ve always thought VR should be a tool for transcendence. However, most of the early demos available for the Rift were fast-paced action or horror games. I decided to create Eden River as a counterpoint to all the intense, anxiety-inducing games out there.

RealSpace: The music in Eden River is really good, and fits the relaxing nature of floating down a river. Did you compose and play all of the music yourself?

Aaron: Thanks!

I composed the score for Eden River and played all the instruments myself. I really enjoy games and films where the musical style seems to match perfectly with the visual style. It’s almost like they become one overall mood or feeling rather than separate sonic and visual styles. Games like Machinarium and Journey do this, as well as films like The Social Network and Interstellar. This melding of sonic and visual was a focus of mine from the beginning with Eden River. I really developed the music in tandem with the environment in hopes of achieving this kind of synergy. I ended up incorporating a lot of acoustic instruments which remind me of nature: acoustic guitar, 12 string guitar, mandolin, banjo, drums, Dobro, as well as pedal steel guitar meandering in and out of the score, mimicking your own meandering path down the river.

“I think it’s the best 3d audio solution available right now.” -Aaron Lemke

 

RealSpace: What tools are you using to build your game?

Aaron: I built Eden River in Unity, using other programs like Photoshop, Maya and Logic Pro as well.

There are a ton of great tools on the Unity Asset Store. Some of my favorites are:

Lightmapping Extended

Simple Mesh Combine

Polyworld

Export2Maya

Marmoset Skyshop

Tom’s Terrain Tools

 

RealSpace: How long have you been using Unity?

Aaron: I have been using Unity for about 5 years.

RealSpace: How long have you been developing for the Oculus Rift?

Aaron: I’ve been developing for the Rift since I got my DK1 in late 2012.

RealSpace: Why did you decide to use 3D positional audio in your game?

Aaron: I’ve always been fascinated by 3D and binaural audio, even long before Oculus reinvigorated the VR space.

The first time I felt presence was not in a VR experience. It was listening to a YouTube video called The Virtual Haircut. This video is nothing more than a stereo audio track, albeit one recorded with a binaural microphone, but it thoroughly tricks your brain into thinking that you are actually in a barber shop.

When the Rift came along and I tried a few demos, I realized that proper spatial audio would be just as important if not more so as things like stereo vision and head tracking to achieving presence in VR.

RealSpace: It is possible to set both the distance from a sound source at which the sound cuts off, and the distance at which sound sources cease to increase in amplitude when approaching the source. People generally always use the distance setting, but not necessarily the amplitude cut-off. Did you make use of both?

Aaron:Yes, I usually play around with these settings and see what feels the most natural. Sometimes these things are very subtle but can greatly add to how convincing an environment feels. It’s important to do a lot of testing and tweaking to get it right.

RealSpace: One of the challenges developers face with 3D sound is just how to manage overlapping sound sources. When you placed sounds in Eden River, what did you do to manage the separation of sounds so that they did not become confusing or overwhelming?

Aaron: When you have lots overlapping sounds it’s important to give visual feedback on where the sounds are coming from, this usually keeps things from getting too confusing.

RealSpace: The room reflection adjustments allow developers to control softness and length of echoes. How did you make decisions on where to set the sliders?

Aaron: Again, for me it’s a lot of trial and error. Tweak a setting, check it out in the Rift, tweak a setting, check it out, etc. I usually start by looking at what types of materials are in the scene. Are they reflective are they absorptive? Then go from there.

Can you give me your honest opinion of RealSpace3D Audio?

Aaron: I think it’s the best 3d audio solution available right now.

RealSpace: How difficult was the learning and use of the RS3D plugin?

Aaron: It was fairly painless to set up and learn how to use the plugin. The documentation and example scenes helped a lot.

RealSpace: If you had a wish list of features to be added to RS3D what would they be?

Aaron: Closer integration with Unity so that the different materials in Unity 5’s physically based shader system also had built in sound reflective properties.

RealSpace: Do you have your eyes set on any new and interesting projects? Please tell us something about other projects you are working on.

Aaron: Right now I am deciding which project to start next. I have a number of things I would like to work on but I need to decide which one should happen first. I will definitely continue to make relaxing experiences like Eden River but also want to explore more abstract, musical VR experiences.