Dolby’s Axon plans to bring clarity to MMOG voice chat…
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In one way, it makes complete sense that Dolby, the sound specialists which bought cinematic audio to games with the integration of Dolby Surround sound in console hardware, is targeting online gaming. After all, nothing’s louder than World of Warcraft, right?
On the other hand, Dolby’s Axon voice technology takes a very different approach compared to its previous focus on the spatialisation of 5.1 and 7.1 sound streams. In fact, Axon required something of a multi-disciplinary approach to a problem that involves managing 3D audio within virtual environments, the poor quality of gaming peripherals and working within the constraints of low latency server-client architectures.
And perhaps this switch has been the biggest challenge for the company. For while it can rely on its reputation for high fidelity audio on the client side, its competitors in the online communications space include the likes of Vivox and Teamspeak, who have more experience in terms of hosted services and network constraints.
It was for that reason that Dolby acquired Australian company Spatial Voice Corporation. It was a university start-up with a plan to improve the 3D spatial accuracy of audio in massively multiplayer online games using a server-based solution to offload some of the processing overhead from the players’ computer.
“They helped us solve the network problem and enabled us to be able to move real-time voice around in a bandwidth-efficient way,” says Matt Tullis, senior manager of the game segment at Dolby. “We can do a full surround sound scene as low as 16 k/bits per second per player.”
Part of the reason is that Axon includes a codec that Dolby developed for handling voice. “It lets us do some processing on the client-side, as well as ensuring we’re very efficient in terms of what we send for processing and mixing on the server,” Tullis explains. “Basically, we minimise the number of transforms we have to calculate on the server, while the codec allows us to make the dialogue high quality at low bandwidth.”
Of course, the knock-on effect is that developers who want to license Axon will also have to consider how they deal with the server-side of the technology. For companies with MMO experience, it will merely be a question of installing the software into existing data centres. Dolby has also partnered with third-party networking companies such as Terremark, GNi and Seven Group for those who are happier paying for someone else to deal with the problem.
“We view developers as partners so from our point of view, it will be a one-time license fee,” Tullis says.
Similarly easing the adoption process is Dolby’s decision to partner up with various middleware engines. It’s already carried out integrations with Unreal Engine 3 and the BigWorld MMO engine, so users of those technologies can choose to get Axon working straight out of the box.
Tullis says the time required for custom integrations depends on exactly how you want to use Axon. Full 3D spatial integration requires a pre-process as the audio engine must be fed the world’s 3D geometry. “It’s like a baking step, but many games use similar data formats so it’s relatively straightforward.”