you've done any sort of online gaming in the past few years, you
know that it's all about communication. Whether fighting off a towering
troll or commanding your troops to rally, communicating needs to be
quick and easy; now more than ever as we venture into a new era of MMO
gaming where we're beginning to see more action-oriented gameplay and
fewer games that give us enough time to type our thoughts. In-game
voice channels are rarely done well so it's not uncommon that the
online gamer and his or her friends and guild look to third party
One of the newest applications for online voice communication comes
from Dolby. You know, the guys who invented stereo and surround sound;
the architects of acoustics; the demigods of digital audio... that
Dolby. As one can expect from the engineers at Dolby, their iteration
of online voice coms adds a whole new twist to the previous generations
of client and server applications: it delivers the audio in surround
sound. That is to say that you and your friends can enter into a
channel, position your avatar by dragging and dropping in the virtual
room, and you will hear your friends based on where they're positioned
in the chat room. If they're behind you, you'll hear them from your
rear speakers. If they're
to your left, you'll hear them from your left
channels. You get the idea.
Entering into a 3d audio space with
your friends is definitely cool. It
adds an extra dimension to your gaming experience (well, duh... the 3rd
dimension). Hear your friends around you. Not only does your
position play a role in how the other joined parties will hear you, but
you can direct your audio as well. Imagine standing in a room full of
people at a party. Your ex walks into the room with her new beau. The
buddy you're with wants to dis her, but doesn't want her to hear. So
what does he do? He takes a step closer to you, turns his back to her
and says quietly in your direction "tramp." Well, this is exactly the
sort of thing you can do with Axon. Just drag your avatar closer, aim
your audio pointer at the person you want to have hear you, and speak.
Ok, so the above example may be cool in a general chat room. But what
about practical gaming application? It has its advantages there too.
Split the room into several groups where their audio faces one another,
and suddenly you not only have guild or raid chat (the whole room), but
also separate group chat (the split groups). See how cool it is?
The sound quality is exceptional. No need to worry about installing and
updating server codecs. Dolby takes care of it all. Simply join the
channel and experience crystal clear voice quality rivaling any other
leading voice chat applications. The sound is sharp and clean, with
little to no clipping or server-side white noise (unwanted noise may
still occur if a user has a poor microphone though).
Renting a Ventrilo server for your guild can get expensive. Depending
how many users you want to have access to the server prices can vary
from $8 to $50 per month. With Axon, a full year's subscription for the
surround pass is $19.95. Alternatively, if you just want to join
other's rooms and just have a place to chat, you can do that free.
The application works much like any Instant Messenger service. You'll
need to add friends and channels to your list, after which you can then
join the rooms on the fly, or chat with friends as you like. In a
typical setup, a guild leader would create a permanent room for the
guild to join (up to 50 simultaneous users). Then, as users enter into
the room, you can add them to your contacts list if they're not already
there, and instigate private chats as you like. The immediate advantage
to this is that it does not require a server admin to create new
channels if users are looking for some privacy.
Now this is all fun stuff, and certainly has some advantages over other
voice applications, but what does this really mean for gaming?
Three letters. A-P-I. Dolby was smart enough to include an API for Axon
at launch, which allows any programmer or game developer to include
Axon within their game. What does this mean, potentially? Imagine that
the troll we mentioned earlier was too much for your group to take on.
You've turned tail and are running out of the caves with two of your
surviving group mates. You can hear the troll chasing you. One of your
friends yells out from behind you that several goblins have joined in
the chase. You can hear his voice behind you, and it echoes off the
dank cave walls. Your other friend yells from beside you that she knows
a shortcut and will meet you at the cave exit. Her voice trails off as
she runs down a different tunnel. You and your first friend
reach the exit, but do not see your other friend. You spin around to
see if she's followed you. She hasn't. Then you hear from behind you
"Duck!" as she casts a fireball over your heads to hit the goblins and
troll that have been chasing you.
Now that's a cool experience. And we could very well see it happen with
proper employment of the API in new games. Several games have already
begun using it, and I expect we'll see more as the API is perfected and
As cool as the application is, there are a couple of points that need
to be brought to attention.
First, there's no volume control. We all have friends who have never
learned how to set up their microphone correctly, and probably never
will. So, we've just learned to live with having to adjust their volume
on our side so we can hear them properly (or turn them down so they
don't bust our eardrums). As easy as Axon is to use, it doesn't take
into account that some folks just need to have everything done for
them. Lack of volume control for inbound audio is a real problem.
The cool features of the application are somewhat handicapped by the
subscription model. Someone with an active Surround Pass will need to
be in the room in order for the surround features to be available. If
no one with a surround pass is in the permanent room, then the amount
of simultaneous users is throttled and surround features are
unavailable. This isn't a horrible solution, and certainly acceptable,
but it would be nice to see an alternate subscription option offering a
full-featured permanent chat room for a monthly or annual fee.
Lastly, as neat as it is to be able to move around the room and spin
yourself to positional audio, there is no practical way to do this
while in a game. You need to alt-tab out to move yourself or other
users around, which is obviously not an option when you're deep in
combat. To be fair, Dolby has little control over what appears in a
game client, but some sort of overlay would make the experience all the
The good news: Dolby is listening. They have an entire feedback form
and are running continuous polls for players to vote on as to which
feature is added next to Axon.
Dolby Axon is geared to become the next standard in online voice
communication applications targeted towards gamers. The functionality
of an Instant Messenger combined with powerful and fun positional voice
chats with first-rate sound quality set the bar high. The application
is intuitive and easy-to-use and offers much more flexibility than
existing voice com applications. At the very reasonable price of free,
there's no reason not to try it out. Dolby is also offering a free
surround pass for 30 days to enjoy all the features the application
In light that Dolby is actively researching and developing the
application even further based on user needs and feedback, this is one
application I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of in all of our gaming
Check it out for yourself at the Dolby