Update, 4/14/16, 11:02am PT: Ossic announced that it just crossed the $2 million mark in its Kickstarter campaign, which had an original goal of only $100,000. The campaign ends in just six days, on April 21.
Ossic invited us out to New York City to sample its innovative approach to 3D audio, the Ossic X headset. Although it can certainly improve your run-of-the-mill audio experiences, it's greatest capability is in making VR experiences more immersive.
The Problem With Fully Immersive Audio
Ossic was founded by audio industry veterans from Logitech and Pioneer, with over 50 years of experience in the business combined. The company believes that for the most part, headphones haven’t fundamentally changed in over 65 years, and with audio and visual content becoming more immersive, there is a need for an equally-compelling sound experience.
Ossic said the problem with traditional headphones is that even 3D audio doesn’t take the listener’s anatomy (such as ear shape, head size and the position of your torso) into account when creating the 3D sound stage. All of these factors, which the company calls head-related transfer function (HRTF), affect how we perceive sound in the real world.
Most current 3D audio solutions use a one-size-fits-all method for its algorithms; without a personal calibration of some kind, it translates to a small listening experience, with the sound remaining close to your head rather than around you (as you would hear things naturally). It’s like hearing something through someone else’s ears, and it seems to be hit-or-miss with sound location accuracy and the overall quality.
Developing A Way To Personalize The Experience
Ossic set out to solve these issues by developing a headset that took the listener’s anatomy and HRTF into account to provide an audio experience that increases the user’s sense of auditory space with increased immersion and locational accuracy.
Working in the famous Abbey Road Studios (where a little band called The Beatles once recorded) the team collected data of sound behavior using a large assortment of model heads in all different shapes and sizes, in addition to interchangeable ear molds, in order to develop the means of measuring an individual’s HRTF. The result is a headset with onboard positional tracking that can measure the size of a user’s head, the shape of their ears, and their position in space to produce a 3D audio experience that naturally replicates the way we hear things in the real world.
Eight individual drivers (four in each ear) supply listeners with increased sound localization and sense of presence by directing the audio to the correct portion of your ear. An anechoic ear chamber keeps outside noise isolated, and the padding is removable and washable.
The audio calibration is instant – the sensors are built into the Ossic X and can be turned on or off using a switch to swap between a normal, close-ear audio experience and the immersive 3D sound. The Ossic X also features a boom-less 3D microphone array, which captures a user’s voice without an obtrusive stick in the face.
We got to try the Ossic X, and we were impressed with its simplicity, comfort and functionality. The lack of a visible mic lends to the device’s light design, and the Ossic X was comfortable to wear even with an HMD strapped to my face.
As a standalone product (without using a VR headset), the Ossic X can be used to add depth to your music, movie and gaming experiences. Ossic demoed this functionality by playing Dark Side Of The Moon (Dad’s music) with the positional tracking enabled. Swapping between the two modes, it was easy to distinguish the difference – Ossic’s positional tracking and 3D audio algorithms provided an immersive experience that created fixed points of sound that remained perceivable no matter which way I turned my head. It made it sound like Pink Floyd was playing right inside the room.
Ossic showcased its headset’s VR capabilities using an HTC Vive and its immersive Secret Shop demo, which provides plenty of multi-directional sounds to test the device. When connected to a VR headset, the Ossic X interfaces with the positional tracking of the HMD to provide accurately-placed sound. This was a completely new VR experience for me, and I could instantly locate sounds from creatures and events not just to my left or right, but also above, in front and behind me, as well.
In the corner of the VR shop was a set of chimes that you could interact with, so I took the opportunity to test the Ossic X by using the touch controller to ring the chimes while turning away from the source of the sound. From my perspective, the chimes remained in the same auditory space no matter which way I turned (even when I tilted my head), adding even more depth to the immersive experience.
This technology is impressive. As a simple set of 3D headphones for use with music, movies and gaming, the difference in the experience is night and day. Typical left and right panning seems almost droll by comparison, and users don’t need to own an expensive VR headset to appreciate the Ossic X. However, pairing the device to an HMD brings another whole layer of immersion to the VR experience.
Ossic’s kickstarter campaign is active now, but it will end on April 21 at 11:00am EDT. You can preorder your pair of Ossic X headphones now for $249, but the estimated delivery is January 2017. Early backers already pledged through the company’s expired early bird offer will start seeing their headsets a little earlier, starting in November 2016. When the Ossic X hits retail, the price will rise to $399.