Ossic X: Hands-On Prototype Demo Impressions
Do you remember a time when high definition didn’t exist? We played games in standard definition, watched movies and sports in standard definition and most importantly, didn’t really feel the need for high definition since we simply could not imagine how the image quality could be bettered. That was of course, until high definition was introduced. It became a revolution. The moment us gamers and audio-visual enthusiasts saw high definition, we couldn’t imagine ever going back to anything that was below 720p. Whilst the visual space has revolutionized, the portable audio market has remained static, until now.
Countless portable audio companies have promised that their headphones possess the technology to be able to provide the most immersive and realistic sound that can possibly come out of a pair of cans. In fact, I have only recently learned that most of this is utter nonsense. Many of today’s widely respected and recognized portable audio companies merely make slight tweaks and alterations to audio algorithms that weren’t even developed in-house, and simply add some bells and whistles to release a brand new product in time for the next festive season. Such changes in audio may be minor, but not revolutionary. Most of the time, they aren’t even noticeable.
However, this is all about to change with the imminent launch and campaign of the Ossic X, the world’s first headset that provides true 3D audio and spatial awareness. The Ossic X is a product that is developed entirely from scratch by a team of ex-Logitech audio gurus. Ossic (that would be ‘Oh Sick!’ for some of you hipsters) recently launched a Kickstarter campaign with a target of $100,000, but have now amassed a total of just under $2.5 million! As part of their campaign, they have been touring certain parts of the world to demo the latest prototypes of the Ossic X to industry experts (including professional PC gamers). They have also partnered up with Abbey Road Studios and are currently working on ways to maximize the potential of 3D audio in the music sector.
I am a true sceptic of anything audio related. I have been let down too many times by big-name companies who promise a lot but offer nothing new. I have succumbed to their marketing campaigns and fancy jargons too often and had given up on buying anything new in the audio sector until I demoed it. Fortunately for me, Ossic recently invited EGL to the world-famous Abbey Road Studios to give a live demo of what the Ossic X can offer. Declining the invite was simply not an option.
Upon my arrival of the Abbey Road Studios, I was greeted by Kristen (Digital Marketing Manager), Joy (Co-Founder and CTO) and Jason (Co-Founder and CEO). I should take the opportunity at this time to really thank Kristen for doing everything to try and get us down for a demo! Before the demo began and after we got the introductions out of the way, I wanted to understand why Ossic was born and what the company’s vision was.
Ossic was formed out of necessity due to a few key problems that currently plague the audio market. Firstly, headphones have simply not evolved for over half a century. Jason and Joy (as well as many other members of Ossic) have worked in the audio industry for decades and often found that companies are more focused on getting product out rather than researching on what can be done to take audio to the next level. Ossic was founded on the basis that it will release high quality products based on the in-house extensive research that is carried out to produce true 3D audio.
Secondly, visual content is rapidly revolutionizing. The need for spatial awareness in certain types of game is greater and it looks like VR is going to take off rapidly. It’s only a matter before a AAA title gets released on PlayStation VR or Oculus before the gaming community begins to invest in VR heavily. However, the fact of the matter is that VR in visual form is limited. Whilst you can look around you whenever you want, it’s often your auditory senses that tell you in real life when to look around. As an example, you’d only look behind you if you heard someone speaking from behind. Currently, there aren’t any headphones in the market that do a good enough job with this. The Ossic X will be designed to tackle this problem.
At this point I want to make one thing clear. I am a huge fan of some of the audio equipment that we have in the gaming industry. I think that the Astro A40s and A50s are a brilliant set of cans, and companies like TurtleBeach and Razer are doing great things. However, headsets like the A40s are very useful because of the complimentary mixamps that come with them. Gaming headsets do not pack the best audio in the headphones industry. There are headphones out there within the same price range that have much better audio. One can argue that gaming headsets’ audio algorithms are made to give you better awareness of where sound is coming from. Whilst this is true, even gaming headphones do not give you true 360 degree 3D audio. If someone is shooting above you, it’s difficult to judge that. Also, gaming headsets will not work well with VR. If you turn around, the audio that was playing in front of you will not suddenly start playing behind you. That is the true meaning of 3D audio.
Finally, Ossic wanted to make a pair of headphones that look like headphones. I know this sounds like a silly claim, however it makes perfect sense. In today’s era, gaming headsets look like gadgets that you’d see out of a Transformers movie. Yes, they may be acceptable in the gaming domain, however what if you want to go out on the street with your headphones and listen to music? You’d look like a moron with a set of headphones that make you look like a cyborg, especially with the countless number of lights that are usually flashing to indicate microphone and volume controls. The Ossic X will look like a standard, discrete pair of headphones that are designed purely for high quality audio. I must admit, even the prototypes looked beautiful.
Jason mentioned that developing 3D audio has been a challenge in the industry. Nobody has managed to get it right until now. Ossic believes that 3D audio alone will not solve a problem. It is important that the listener’s anatomy (ear shape, size of the head and body position) must all play a key role in how the audio is presented to the listener. All of these are factors that our minds take into consideration when listening to audio in real life, and the headphones must be able to do the same. Ossic has branded this as HRTF (head-related transfer function), which in short just relates to how people process sound in the real world.
The 3D audio headphones that may exist in the market right now do not take HRTF into consideration. There is no calibration with the user, which is one of the reasons why the 3D audio experience is lacking. One of Ossic’s key challenges was to create a headset at a consumer level that can auto-calibrate itself to the anatomy of the listener. After a while of talking, it was down to finally getting a prototype demo of the Ossic X.
At this point, Joy took control and explained some of the key features of the demo I was going to listen to. Poetically, she was going to have me listen to some Pink Floyd tracks, which were actually remastered four decades ago within the Abbey Road Studios! Jason explained how the tracks were recorded so that certain aspects of the song would only be distributed to specific speakers in certain directions, however to this day people have been listening to the tracks using a standard pair of stereo headphones! I had control of the laptop that was connected to the Ossic X. The laptop allowed me to switch off the 3D audio so that I could listen to the track using a standard stereo algorithm.
The moment Joy played the first track, I instantly realized that this was the next big thing. This was the high-definition to the standard-definition. As long as Ossic continues to follow the path that it is, I genuinely believe that this is going to be in every competitive gamer’s hands by the end of 2017. The moment Dark Side of the Moon started playing, I could hear the music change as I moved my head from side to side. The prototype that I used did not have vertical spatial awareness, but I have been reassured that this does exist and will be in the final production build. As I turned my head and body 180 degrees, suddenly the chimes of Time were playing behind me, with the left chimes inversed to the right and vice versa. This was truly a moment of magic. When I turned off the 3D audio, the difference was even more obvious. This ten minute demo has turned me into a true believer in Ossic and I cannot wait to get my hands on the final version.
A sense of direction was only one aspect of the miracle of 3D audio. I felt a true sense of distance. I could hear some chimes closer than others. It certainly made me wonder how amazing a game like Assassins Creed would play in a 3D audio environment. Before my demo, I never even wondered such things, since I never felt a need for it. Now, I am desperate for it to become a reality, and I’m convinced that in a few years down the line, it just might become mainstream.
The implications for eSports gaming are clearly obvious. Jason did stress that they are currently looking at 3D audio for PC games, however after some meetings with audio experts at PlayStation and Xbox, Jason did also mention that there is no reason why the technology cannot be integrated into the console market. All it will take is for a AAA game to be released with the 3D audio capabilities and suddenly every other game will follow suit. Competitive gamers are always investing in the latest and greatest gadgets to get an upper-edge on their opponents. The playing field right now has remained level for quite a while, however I believe that the Ossic X will take eSports to a new level. Instead of players strafing their guns left and right to try and ‘sound-whore’ enemies on another side of the wall, they will be able to use the Ossic X to highly accurately pinpoint exactly when an enemy is about to come around a corner. Let’s not forget that games like Call of Duty and Halo (to name a few) have competitive maps that are almost as vertical as they are horizontal, so having awareness of what’s above and below you is just as important.
A little frustratingly, I am now sitting here and writing this article, wishing that I had a pair of Ossic X headphones around my ears rather than the Beats Pro that I usually listen to. My ten minute demo has made getting a pair of Ossic X headphones the number one priority of things to obtain this year (yes, it has even surpassed my urge for the inevitable iPhone and whatever potential new gaming console that might be announced and released this year). I don’t expect you to become a believer in the Ossic X just by reading this. I certainly wouldn’t. I hope that one day we will have Ossic attend one of our LAN events so you can appreciate the true power of 3D audio. Then, perhaps, you will understand why the Ossic X could be the high definition revolution that will propel a very stagnant fifty years of standard definition audio into the next generation of immersion.