Designing an audio branded VR experienceMay 11, 2023
In this blog we’ll look into a variety of ways that brands can utilize VR and AR from an audio branding perspective, some guidelines to keep in mind when designing an effective soundscape for an interactive space, as well as ways to improve the current soundscape of branded VR experiences.
Examples of Branded VR/AR Experiences
The ability to immerse people in a virtual world is the single biggest strength of VR and AR. Therefore, it is no surprise that brands have developed a variety of experiences for their audiences and even employees to take part in. These experiences take many different forms, ranging from pure entertainment to useful tools.
Let’s take a look at some different experiences first;
VR Games: Wendyverse
VR Games are a great way to keep an audience entertained and engaging, and also a perfect place to build a branded world around the player, since they are fully immersed in the experience. Immersion is a key element in games and it requires a careful balance of visual design, narrative elements, gameplay mechanics, and sound design. Due to their lighthearted nature, games (in the branded VR space) have a broader appeal that extends to both younger and older audiences, making them enjoyable for all. The point of a branded VR game isn’t necessarily to be the most accurately branded thing in the world, but rather for the brand to act as a fun world for the player to explore and interact with.
An example of this would be the “Wendyverse”, a virtual representation of a Wendy’s restaurant where players can play mini-games, walk around in a restaurant, serve food and find easter eggs. It was available through the Meta Quest 2 devices and allowed for players to play with their friends as well.
Check out an example of it here:
“Immersion is a key element in games and it requires a careful balance of visual design, narrative elements, gameplay mechanics, and sound design.”
VR Shopping: Ikea VR/AR
Ikea has been great at understanding the needs of their customers and how they can use technology to help them. The IKEA Place app for example, is an AR-based app that allows users to visualize how IKEA furniture will look and fit in their homes, before making a purchase. By simply pointing their smartphone or tablet camera at a space in their home, users can browse through a range of IKEA furniture and see how it looks in real-time and at scale.
Ikea has also developed a VR Showroom. This allows customers to explore and interact with a virtual 3D version of a IKEA living room. Users can see how furniture looks, move it around, and interact with it in a way that’s similar to a real shopping experience.
And as if that wasn’t enough, IKEA has also developed an online kitchen planner, that uses 3D models and VR technology, to help customers design their own kitchens. Customers can explore different layouts, materials, and colors, and see how everything will look in a realistic 3D rendering of their own kitchen.
With this range of tools, Ikea allows customers to make interior design and purchase decisions, all from the comfort of their own home.
VR Training: Walmart/Maersk
VR training is becoming more and more common. The reason for this is that doctors, engineers and many more can learn to perform dangerous, risky and complex tasks without the fear of risking the life of another, or their own. By simulating the specific movements and procedures required in their daily work, they can practice and commit them to memory before attempting them in real-life situations.
So how does audio fit into this space?
We react very naturally to audio. Some sounds make us relaxed while others stress us out. Some sounds become very memorable for us, while others are foreign and imperceptible. Given how complex a soundscape can be, it’s important that it matches the given circumstance as closely as possible in a training situation, to avoid any friction when entering the real world. An example could be that a certain alarm plays in a real-world scenario, which hasn’t been represented in the VR simulation. This would most likely have the worker stressed or overly focused on that sound, to figure out its meaning in relation to what has been learned beforehand.
Sounds that are produced directly from a product, service or process can also become synonymous with a given brand. Think of the fizzling sound when opening a bottle of Coca Cola, or the iconic sound when starting up a macbook. A VR training environment is the perfect place to highlight and teach employees the importance and meaning of these sounds.
A couple of good examples of VR training is how Maersk and Walmart have managed to implement it to their educational employee program. Walmart’s VR training simulates various real-world scenarios that employees might encounter on the job, such as dealing with an angry customer, performing various tasks or handling a rush of shoppers during the holiday season.
Watch a sneak peek of the Walmart Training here:
“We react very naturally to audio. Some sounds make us relaxed while others stress us out. Some sounds become very memorable for us, while others are foreign and imperceptible.”
Maersk, similarly, has used VR simulations to train its seafarers on various scenarios and critical maneuvers that require precise and coordinated actions, such as emergency situations, vessel operations, and cargo handling. The simulations allow seafarers to practice and improve their skills in a risk-free environment, which can lead to fewer accidents and delays.
VR 360 Video: Mercedes Benz
A simpler form of VR branding is using 360 videos. VR 360 video is a type of immersive video that allows viewers to experience a 360-degree view of a location or environment, as if they were physically present in that space. These videos can be viewed using a VR headset, a smartphone, or a computer screen.
These types of videos are often used to tell stories or showcase a brand’s services and products. For example, a car company might create a VR 360 video that allows viewers to explore the interior and exterior of their latest model, a charity might create a VR 360 video that takes viewers on a virtual tour of the communities they serve, giving them a firsthand look at the impact of their donations, while a hotel might create a VR 360 video that takes viewers on a virtual tour of the local area and its history.
Take a look at an example from Mercedes Benz here;
Utilizing Audio Effectively in VR and AR
When in an VR environment, sound accounts for 30-50% of the experience, depending on the amount of haptic feedback used. Therefore, it is important to understand how to utilize audio effectively in order to convey a sense of presence and realism.
The first step is to think about the overall ambient soundscape of the experience you are creating. The ambience is what will make the experience feel real and immersive, if done right. It will consist of a lot of different sounds combined; wind, birds chirping or the sound of a waterfall – whatever is relevant to that specific world.
The ambient soundscape plays a crucial role in creating a sense of realism and immersion. The ambient soundscape refers to the collection of background sounds and noises that contribute to the overall sonic environment of the experience.
A crucial step in creating a compelling ambient soundscape is to consider the setting or environment of the experience. For example, if you are designing a virtual forest, you might include the sounds of rustling leaves, birds singing, and a nearby stream. If you are designing a virtual cityscape, you might include the sounds of traffic, people talking, and street musicians.
In addition to considering the environment, you should also think about how different sounds interact with each other. You may want to layer sounds on top of each other to create a more complex and dynamic soundscape. For example, you might combine the sound of crickets chirping with the sound of a distant waterfall to create a sense of depth and distance.
It’s also important to consider how the soundscape changes over time. For example, if you are designing a virtual forest that changes with the seasons, you might include different ambient sounds for each season. In the spring, you might have more bird sounds and the sound of rain, while in the fall, you might have more rustling leaves and the sound of acorns falling.
3D audio is the ability to place a sound within an interactive world and have it react to the head position of the user, meaning that you will hear the sound coming from left to right, top to bottom and everywhere in between, depending on which way the user is looking. This is an extremely powerful tool when it comes to immersion, as sounds can behave just like they would in real life. It is even possible to change how the sounds behave, based on their distance from the user and if there are objects between the sound and the “ears” of the listener.
For example, Imagine that we’ve placed the sound of a fridge running in the “Wendyverse” kitchen. To make this feel more alive we could first of all make it a 3D sound, so that it reacts to the positioning of the listeners ears. We could then make the sound become lower in volume at a distance, to simulate the same effects that happens in real life. To further enhance this distance effect, we could turn down the high frequencies the more we move away from the fridge, simulating how sound behaves in real life as well. And finally, to add even more detail, we could add an obstruction system, where the sound of the fridge would be muffled when moving behind walls or other objects.
3D audio is also effective in terms of guiding an user in a specific direction. Utilizing volume and high frequency content, it is possible to direct attention to a specific location with the intent of either making a user look or even walk over to that location. This is all a matter of balance, as sound can quickly seem out of place – making them inherently annoying or distracting. The key is to make them just distracting and interesting enough for a user to explore them, without sacrificing the integrity or quality of the sound. Using this method, it is possible to enhance the storytelling in the user experience, by guiding the user in a subtle way through the experience.
Utilizing these techniques will heighten the quality of the soundscape tremendously, if used correctly.
In narrative experiences, the voice assumes a crucial role in shaping the overall user experience. It serves as a guiding force, weaving captivating stories, and providing informative details. Particularly in the realm of VR 360 videos, the inclusion of a voice adds a new dimension to the immersive journey. As users explore and visit various areas within the virtual environment, the voice becomes the storyteller, offering insightful narratives about the surroundings and enhancing the sense of presence.
By leveraging the power of voice in these experiences, creators have the ability to transport users to different worlds, historical eras, or even fictional realms. The voice can bring characters to life, creating a deeper connection between the audience and the narrative unfolding before them. It has the potential to engage users on an emotional level, evoking empathy, curiosity, or excitement. It can provide relevant information about the locations being explored, offering historical context, cultural insights, or scientific explanations. This enhances the educational value of the experience, making it an interactive and immersive learning opportunity.
Because our ears are so attuned to the sound of a voice, the use of voice can be even more effective than 3D audio for guiding users to a specific location. If we hear a person say “Hey! Look over here”, we are much more likely to look compared to if a sound plays from that location. That doesn’t mean that it is always the right choice, as it all comes down to aesthetic direction. A voice is clearer to understand, but will also be much less subtle, while also having the potential to become annoying after a while if the voice isn’t liked, rate of speech is too high or amount of voice lines are excessive and limits the users freedom.
Choosing the right voice for the experience and brand is also important. Ideally, you want the voice to reflect the values and attributes of the brand as much as possible while still remaining relevant to the experience that is being created. There will be times when these two ideals are at odds, in these situations it’s worth sacrificing the branded element in favor of the experience, as the overall quality of the experience is what will drive them to the rest of the brand.
Where to utilize audio branding?
Another important question is where to use the branded audio assets within these experiences, as the opportunities might not seem as obvious as with conventional branding. Let’s look at three different categories and how to use them, namely the audio logo, the music and the UI sounds.
In the context of virtual reality (VR), the implementation of the audio logo requires careful consideration, to ensure a seamless integration that enhances the overall user experience. While it can be challenging to incorporate the audio logo in a natural way, strategic adaptations of the logo for specific contexts can unlock its potential and showcase its effectiveness, in new and engaging ways.
One ideal moment to introduce the audio logo is during the intro screen or splash screen of the VR experience. As this is the first audio cue users encounter, it sets the tone for their entire journey. Depending on the nature of the logo and the experience itself, it may be beneficial to create a modified version of the audio logo, specifically tailored for this moment. A more ambient rendition with a longer attack and release could be designed to gently immerse users into the soundscape of the audio brand, gradually easing them into the overall VR experience. Another opportune moment to utilize the audio logo is during winning or positive interactions within the VR environment. By strategically incorporating the audio logo in these moments, it reinforces a positive association with the brand in the users minds. However, to evoke the desired emotional response and create the right atmosphere, it may be necessary to develop a new version or variation of the audio logo that aligns with the specific context and desired feeling of accomplishment or positivity. The goal is to ensure that the audio logo seamlessly integrates with the VR experience, avoiding any sense of forced or abrupt insertion. By customizing versions of the logo for different contexts within the VR environment, creators can maximize the impact and resonance of the audio brand, facilitating a deeper and more memorable connection with users.
Utilizing audio branding is particularly effortless in the realm of music, as it is already a natural component of various experiences. By incorporating music into these experiences, one can effectively evoke specific emotions or subtly emphasize the brand’s personality. The use of branded music, employing the same instrumentation as the audio logo or incorporating melodic callbacks to the brand’s melody, can subconsciously introduce users to the brand’s character. Furthermore, since these experiences are interactive by nature, we have the opportunity to adapt the music based on user behavior. For instance, we can add layers to the music as the game progresses to build tension. We can also modify the music depending on the users actions or their point of focus, opening up limitless possibilities. By employing music that dynamically changes in response to user behavior, we can create a more organic, enjoyable, and engaging experience.
If UI sounds are associated with the brand, for example by having them already implemented in a product or serve, it can be beneficial to implement them into these experiences as well. They can be used when navigating through menus, pressing buttons on virtual machines or just as general sound effects. Using UI sounds that are in line with the rest of the audio identity, will help make the overall experience feel more thorough and cohesive and ultimately this builds more trust with the user.
Through strategic and creative thinking where we account for branding as well as technical possibilities, we can integrate audio branding effectively in VR/AR experiences and create a more immersive, engaging, and memorable brand experience overall. As the technology continues to evolve, brands should explore and experiment with more creative audio branding strategies to maximize the impact and resonance of their brand in the virtual world.