I really love concept art, old science fiction book covers, and movie posters. It was fascinating to watch the making of The Empire Strikes Back where I learned that many of the back drops were paintings done on glass and lit from behind to create those grand and epic sets. I wanted to what it was like to be inside one of those strange and wonderful places, but still keeping the style of the artwork. My latest VR project will be to recreate some epic scenes for a Google Cardboard release. The above image is a screen shot from a test scene in Unity representing some mountain and country side imagery. All objects are 3D models with a hand painted texture applied. The lighting is in real-time, but will be baked for the final release.
I received the Subpac M2 from the generous folks at NYCVR through their equipment sharing and loan program almost a month ago. This is a new program for VR developers who are members of the NYCVR Meetup group. They can sign up to test new equipment and then give a short demonstration and review of it.
I was handed the Subpac M2 to demo right before the last NYCVR Meetup in June started, so I only had a few minutes to familiarize myself with the setup. I had seen the Subpac once before at an earlier meetup, but I didn’t get a chance to try it. I had very little experience with haptic devices other than game controllers so I was excited to put it on and crank up some music and share it with others.
Description and Setup
So what is the Subpac M2? The Subpac M2 is a haptic vest a person wears that responds by vibrating to low frequencies when connected to an audio source, whether it’s music, a movie, or a video game. Basically it’s a subwoofer you wear on your back. It’s worn like a small back pack with two shoulder straps and a strap that connects in the front across your chest. It has a small box connected to it that has a knob which can control the intensity of the bass you feel and an 1/8” output for the headphones and an 1/8” input for the line in. There is also an option to connect to it with Bluetooth. The M2 is fairly lightweight and feels comfortable and snug like a piece of high tech body armor when the straps are adjusted correctly. There is also another strap that connects around your waist to help bring it closer to your body.
I had a few minutes to myself with the M2 and luckily it’s pretty easy to use if you’ve ever plugged in a headphone cable and worn a vest at the same time. However, in my excitement I did not take the time to look at the booklet that came with it, which I should have. Then I would have seen the proper way to lace the cables through loops in the vest and that there was a small pocket to hold the control box. After a few demonstrations though, someone pointed out these features to me and I made the corrections.
I’m a drummer so the first thing I listened to with the Subpac was Rush, followed by Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. The hair on the back of my neck jumped to attention as soon as the first waves of bass and kick drum hit me. It was as close to being at a concert as I could have been without the visual. I knew this was going to be an instant hit for anyone who uses this with VR playing a game, watching a Netflix movie or a 360 video. I was able to demo the device on several people after the speaking portion of the event concluded. I think the most fun was had watching AD/DC concert videos and movie trailers on YouTube. We also tried some jazz, reggae, and classical music, which is a completely different way to experience Beethoven. I couldn’t wait to get this home and try it with some VR games and some of the VR projects I’m working on.
VR Development Uses
Sound in VR is just as or if not more important than visuals in my opinion. You can still have a completely immersive experience with just sound. If you can incorporate high quality sounds accompanied by haptics, you will give your user another level of immersion that headphones alone can’t.
I’m currently developing my first VR game for the HTC Vive called “Everything’s a Drum” with 3 friends of mine. In the game the player has a pair of drumsticks and can walk around the environment hitting anything and everything and having it react with sound as it would in the real world. We only have a few sounds going in the alpha version at the moment, but being able to feel the sounds while playing the game is going to takes it to another level.
Another thing I noticed while testing, is that you can really tell the difference in the quality of the audio files depending on if it’s an mp3 or a wav. The higher the sample the audio, the more frequencies you get resulting in more haptic vibration. I especially noticed this listening to music on YouTube vs. listening to the CD quality recording. So make sure you are using the best quality sounds you can get for your game or if you are making a 360 video, get the best microphone and recording gear you can get to capture those sounds.
Testing the Subpac M2 on finished VR games was what truly convinced me of its abilities. My friend with an HTC Vive had just downloaded the new Star Wars Tattooine Experience and let me tell you when I felt and saw the Millennium Falcon land right next me, it almost brought tears to my eyes. I held back though because I didn’t want to mess up his Vive.
Getting to use the Subpac for a whole month was a tremendously fun experience. It really adds another level of immersion to great VR games and can make OK ones even better. I tried it on Minecraft, Anshar Wars, and a bunch of other Gear VR games and all were improved by it. Games and movies with loud, low sounds like explosions and engines really come to life with the Subpac M2 in your VR toolkit. It does have a few cons though, such as it is not cheap ($300-$400?) and you may have to deal with some dangly wires and making sure its charged or you’ll have to use it plugged in to a wall. It can also annoy other people not wearing it close by as they will hear the vibration of the vest. That being said I still want one. The Subpac M2 took my VR immersion a few layers deeper than I had previously been and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who get a chance to try it with VR.