Loki Brings 3D Sound to 3D Vision

by David Penn

Scott Draeker, president of Loki Entertainment Software, said, "What SGI's OpenGL has done for 3D-Video, OpenAL will do for 3D-Audio."

For Linux gamers, the better it gets, the better it must become. As 3D gaming has opened up increasingly for Linux, what has lagged behind the eye-popping visual element is similarly ear-bending audio. Because the audio libraries for Macintosh and Windows games are both proprietary (closed-source) and incompatible with the Linux operating system, opportunities for state-of-the-art 3D sound for Linux-native and Linux-ported games were scarce. In fact, Loki noted in a press statement that before OpenAL, the initiative the company is spear-heading, there was no standard 3D-audio implementation available for Linux. Thus, the decision to develop an audio API that is both cross-platform and open source is a significant breakthrough for all gamers.

"OpenAL represents a milestone for Linux and for the game industry in general," said Mr. Draeker. "Until now, games running on Linux have not had access to the advanced 3D-Audio features available on other platforms. OpenAL provides those advanced features with an open source, non-proprietary implementation which is available not just for Linux, but for Windows and MacOS games as well."

What good is 3D-Audio? Most basically, 3D-Audio increases the level of realism in any game, with specialized sound effects such as distance and direction attenuation, as well as panning and reverb effects. But, as Mr. Draeker points out, the benefits of 3D-Audio extend beyond the world of computer gaming. "For example," he notes, "an architectural program might allow you to walk through a new building. OpenAL would allow the walk-through to be audible, not just visual. So you would get a sense of the acoustics of the building. You'll be able to tell whether sound from the downstairs TV is going to reflect loudly into an upstairs bedroom and hear the acoustical difference between using carpet and tile in a hallway."

Creative Technology is one of the companies that has joined Loki Entertainment in launching the OpenAL initiative. The company has said it plans to release Linux drivers that will not only work with OpenAL, but will natively support the advanced audio effects made possible through OpenAL. Said Creative's Director of the Custom Engineering division Jacob Hawley, "This API will help content developers provide robust applications on Linux and other leading platforms, opening new markets for hardware vendors such as Creative in the process."

Creative Technology currently supports OpenAL with Eagle, "a kind of 3D-Audio authoring tool" allowing users to draw sounds in a 3D environment.

Corel Corporation is the third member of the OpenAL creation and authoring committee, and the company is looking to include OpenAL as a standard component of Corel Linux. This step would be the necessary "lowering of the bar" for users who simply want to buy a prepackaged distribution, install it and go, without having to worry about configuring or compiling the software.

Loki says OpenAL is already being incorporated into what it calls its line of "AAA Linux games". The Linux version of Activision's Heavy Gear II, for example, will be released this month. It is the first Linux game to support 3D-Audio using OpenAL.

Says Mr. Draeker, "OpenAL completes the list of tools needed to play games on Linux. There will continue to be improvements, but the feature set is now more or less complete. Developing games for Linux requires additional tools which aren't yet available for Linux, like 3D animation packages. Such content creation tools are the next step, and OpenAL is already opening those doors."

The source code for OpenAL for Linux, Macintosh and Windows is available for download and is being offered under the GNU Library Public License (LGPL). More details are available at http://www.openal.org.

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