Inside the Sound Lab which uses virtual reality to create immersive spaces

At the third The ground floor of Arup Global Acoustics’ Lower Manhattan office is a small space covered in fabric that resembles a cocoon. It has a huge curved screen, a bone-shaking sound system, and an Oculus Rift VR headset. Arup, a design and engineering company, calls it the SoundLab.

The company’s line is that the SoundLab creates virtual sound environments to help architects improve the acoustics of their buildings. What it really does, however, is transport you visually and audibly to any space — a concert hall, a subway platform, a cathedral. It’s one thing to make it look like you’re there; VR is good for that. It’s another to do it ring I like this. “We use the data to help you feel yourself,” says Raj Patel, director at Arup Global Acoustics.

The architects working on SFMOMA used the SoundLab to set up two theaters; the same technology helped tone down the potential cacophony of the Fulton Street Transit hub in Manhattan. To make it work, engineers build a computer model of a building or space, then map a network of measurements called “impulse responses” that create an acoustic signature. Then the engineers record the source sounds — a piano concerto, for example, or the rumble of a subway — in a sound-absorbing anechoic chamber. Using acoustic simulation software, engineers transmit this audio signal to the acoustic signature of the virtual room, thereby simulating the sound it would produce anywhere in that space.

James ewing

The realism is striking. Sitting inside the SoundLab, surrounded by a sphere of over 40 speakers, was almost indistinguishable from sitting in a concert hall. I heard melodies over my shoulder. I heard reverberations from above. But more than that — changing the room changed the sound. A long, narrow room seemed more intimate; a bigger one felt fuller. This level of control allows designers to go far beyond the sound of a piano in a concert hall; they can deal with such mundane things as mechanical noise and structural vibrations.

When SoundLab started almost 20 years ago, processing all this data required 400 computers running 24 hours at a time. Today, its flagship simulators — Arup has 14 SoundLabs around the world — run on two 3.7GHz Mac Pro Quad Core Intel Xeon E5 processors and two 4.6GHz Windows Intel Core i7 5960X processors.


Of course, sound is not the only way to evoke the feeling of a space. Arup engineers are also working on ways to simulate sensations such as movement and vibration. A motorized “shaking table” allows them to model how, say, a concert hall might vibrate during a concert — or an earthquake. Patel and his colleagues coordinate with the researchers to recreate sensations of light, touch, temperature and even smell. “There are a lot of people who explore these things separately,” Patel explains. “The ultimate goal would be to bring everything together in one environment. At some point, everything is going to fall into place.” And this lab is going to be a hell of a place to visit.

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