Would you mind introducing yourself, your position in the company and your role in working with THX in game settings?
I’m Dr. Mark Tuffy and I’m the Director of Games at THX. In my current position, I run all of our video game related activities, including our game and studio certification programs and the development of new technologies, such as Neural-THX Surround.
Why has THX now expanded its role in the gaming audio market beyond specifications only?
THX is always associated as being a quality brand, bringing a high level of performance in every category we touch. But, we also spend a lot of time looking at ways to improve how content is created and experienced by the end-user. Beyond setting the performance benchmarks for audio and video quality, we also want to create technologies that make the gaming experience more immersive and interactive. That’s why we’re working on technologies such as Neural-THX Surround, THX Ground Plane and Slot Speaker.
THX has a huge presence in the theatre and home theatre markets, how does gaming audio differ from those markets?
The bigger question is how the home theatre and gaming markets are similar. THX has actually done quite a bit of research into the behaviour of the gamers—where they play, how much they play, console setup, etc. Twenty five years ago, the Atari 2600 was relegated to the kid’s room. Now, the gaming console is front-and-center, playing an integral role in the home theatre experience. In fact, according to the study that THX conducted with Nielsen Research, 40 percent of all American households now have at least one console. And the majority of these are located in a living or family room.
Close to half of those surveyed indicated that they use their game consoles to watch movies in addition to playing games. However, what surprised us the most was the number of gamers who currently own multi-channel surround sound systems. The Nielsen study revealed that more than 54 percent of PS3 and 48 percent of Xbox 360 consoles are currently connected to multi-channel (5.1 or greater) home theater systems.
Can you give our readers a quick overview of exactly what Neural-THX Surround is and how it can change the gaming experience?
Today, most video game consoles are limited to presenting game soundtracks in 5.1. The problem? Regardless of
where you put the two speakers, they won’t give you a true 360-degree sound experience. So, we started looking at new ways of placing sound elements all around the gamer so they get the full benefit of a game’s audio engine, making the experience more immersive. The result of this work is Neural-THX Surround, which is a new technology jointly developed by THX and our partner Neural Audio. The Neural-THX Surround technology is inserted into the game’s audio engine, allowing it to carry two extra channels of sound behind the listener (to the rear of the listening position). Instead of the audio engine running on 5.1, it runs on 7.1. The technology encodes this 7.1 soundtrack down to 5.1 for playback by the console (this means no need to modify the console). On the playback side the receiver extracts the 7.1 back out again. For gamers, Neural-THX Surround places sound effects, dialogue and other sounds elements all around them in real time. It makes the game experience more interactive and immersive.
When I met with THX representatives at CES, it was mentioned that Neural-THX could eventually become the standard for gaming audio. What is the process that is undertaken to work with developers, PC hardware and console manufactures to integrate this technology? How does this technology differ from the Dolby and Creative Labs technology that’s already on the market?
THX and Neural have produced a software code which can be provided directly to game developers and publishers. The code was developed to be as efficient and flexible as possible as no two games are developed the same. THX then works with the developers to help integrate the code into the game’s audio engine, checking along the way to ensure that the technology operates correctly. Given that Neural-THX actually lives within the game, there is no need for console manufacturers or PC hardware manufacturers to alter their products. The technology becomes part of the game and runs in real-time as the game does.
The difference between Neural-THX Surround and other technologies is this is the first 7.1 encoder specifically designed for video game content. This technology allows the gamer to get 7.1 whether connected with HDMI, optical or analog.
It was mentioned previously that Sierra’s Prototype will have Neural-THX incorporated. What other developers and titles have signed on to integrate Neural-THX into future releases?
We can’t announce any new titles right now, but stay tuned.
Will Neural-THX be specific to console gaming, or will it be incorporated into Windows or Mac PC games as well? What kind of hardware is needed to utilize this technology on the PC side?
Yes, Neural-THX Surround can be used in Mac or PC games. The technology is a real time encoding technology, so the audio hardware needs only to have the ability to either create or deliver an audio bitstream.
Could you provide a brief list of some major Home Theater equipment manufacturers that will be incorporating Neural-THX into their receivers? When can we expect to see these hit retail stores?
Around 70 percent of new AV receivers will feature Neural-THX Surround. This includes CE manufacturers like Yamaha, Sony and Denon. The flagship Yamaha RX-Z11, which is one of the hottest new AVRs on the market today, features Neural-THX Surround along with THX Loudness Plus, a new volume control technology for optimizing low volume level game play and movie watching.
What was the inspiration for developing the Ground Plane and Slot Speaker technology that’s in the Razer Mako 2.1? It is very unique in that it uses flat surfaces of desks to its advantage. Are there 5.1/7.1 products in the pipeline?
The THX Slot Speaker technology actually evolved from work that we were doing with the Ford Motor Company. We wanted to put a speaker on the dashboard of select Lincoln vehicles to better distribute sound throughout the vehicle cabin. However, we could only secure a space the size of a slot (the size of a CD player insert). This is where the Slot Speaker concept was born. Later on, THX’s Laurie Fincham started developing ideas to adapt the slot concept to home speakers, such as the Razer Mako 2.1. A benefit of the Slot Speaker and Ground Plane design is the omindirectional sound experience. During development of the Razer Mako, we realized how it creates a 360-degree sound image. As you probably noticed in your review, the sound image fills the room.
On the Razer Mako, the satellite speakers are connected with Cat-5 wiring instead of a traditional pair of copper wires. What advantage does this provide the system, and was this done for the benefit of the THX Ground Plane and Slot Speaker technology? Is there any chance we could see a wireless model in the future?
The Razer Makos are innovative for desktop speakers because they are bi-amped with a separate amplifier driving the woofer and tweeter. Because of this, we felt that using a Cat 5 cable would allow the system to best manage the power, while providing an easy mechanism to ensure the correct user setup. For example, you will notice that when one satellite is disconnected, it shuts the whole system down. In regards to having a wireless version of the Mako, there are no immediate plans to go wireless, however, we are always looking at ways to enhance the performance and feature sets of products.
GamingNexus would like to thank Dr. Tuffy for taking the time to answer our questions