Welcome to Cornell University, where a whole a lab of researchers are busily smashing objects together in order to create a computer model that can accurately create virtual noise.
For anyone who’s seen or been in the same city where a Michael Bay movie is playing, it’s patently obvious that sounds, mostly the sounds of bone-blistering explosions, are an integral part of the theatre experience.
The same is true for computer-generated movies or video games, in which sound can be used to transform a game or movie from “kinda creepy” to “scary as hell” and can lend an authenticity to an otherwise uninspired fight scene or tense, melodramatic moment.
What many moviegoers and connoisseurs of the electronic gaming arts do not realize, however, is that almost every sound in a live-action movie is not the actual sound of the event on-screen taking place, but an approximation produced in a sound studio by way of computer or some guy making really excellent “explody” noises.
Similarly, video games use pre-recorded sound files that are triggered when an event in-game occurs. If “XLHazzor” blows up a house in the latest and greatest World War II themed shooter, the “houseblowup1” file is triggered and plays through the speakers. Sure, there might be 4 such variations on houses getting blown up, but eventually, they get old.
Accurate sound representation in films and games has always been a problem 1) because “real” sounds taken at the time of filming don’t really sound that great and 2) there are no “real” sounds in video games.
Taking his cue from the virtual world, associate professor of computer science Doug James and his team from Cornell University got to work on a way to make fake sounds sound like the real thing.
The trick is in accurate computer modeling. The team has devised an algorithm which is able to accurately predict the stress that an object is under – be it real and video captured or purely computer generated – extrapolate where it will break, and then estimate how much each shard of that object will vibrate once its potential energy gets very, very kinetic. Research into exactly what makes sound do its thing has determined that it is the vibration of these shards, rather than the initial breakage of the object, that causes the bulk of the sound we hear.
In order to not bog down the system and require a massive computer that demands some sort of hilarious 1970s reference, the system designed by the team assigns the shards an ellipsoid shape of similar size and weight, and then estimates just how much they will vibrate and which way they will go. The team went ahead and put together a video of the smashing of various materials, and then introduced their sound program in to the mix.
James admits that this is a first, rudimentary step in the process, and that the sounds are by nature artificial. Still, this is a great first step. Instead of “glassbreak6”, a wine glass knocked off a table in a video game can be given its own, personalized sound as it hits the virtual floor, based on its speed, angle, and the surface it is smashing down upon.
Though not yet the savior of the movie and gaming sound industry, this new procedure for sound production should enable a far more accurate, more entertaining experience.
You heard it here first.