As we come out of coverage of E3 and eagerly anticipate the release of next-gen consoles later this year; there has been a good deal of discussion about the social networking, graphical and visual capabilities of these new boxes. The two things that have excited me the most about the Playstation 4 specifically aren’t it’s custom processing unit, background downloading, or even integrated Playstation Move functionality. What I am happy to see is two things the new DualShock 4 controller has: a headphone jack and a SHARE button.
Let’s start off with the headphone jack which according to Wikipedia is a: “stereo jack (3.5 mm TRS connector) will support the connection of a headset to allow a user to speak and hear audio simultaneously.” Why is this such a big deal? Such a jack’s primary purpose seems to be for a mono headset, so how can that possibly raise the visibility of audio? Easy! When used as an actual stereo output into decent headphones; those of us with sleeping girlfriends, sleeping children, sensitive neighbors and awful TV speakers or poor 5.1 setups will be able to hear crisp, clean and clear audio for maybe the first time ever.
The Wii U controller also has a headphone jack that can be used in such a way. Anecdotally I have had great experience hearing the fantastic sound design in Mass Effect 3 and Batman: Arkham City this way. Regardless of the time of day or state of slumber anyone around my proximity is in; I have been able to enjoy game audio at full volume in my headphones. Unfortunately the Wii U is in a bit of a Western AAA game drought with no forecast of precipitation. This functionality in Nintendo’s console will still be useful for first party games like Zelda and Mario, but I don’t think these titles enough can shift perception of audio as much as Sony’s third-party friendly device.
The Playstation 4 has the potential for all AAA multiplatform titles as well at it’s own exclusive titles which all the the possibly of fantastic audio. While the last generation has shown a significant increase in interest and budgets of game audio; the headphone jack will make it even harder for consumers and developers alike to ignore or marginalize audio in games. Soon; even an infrequent consumer of games whose console is basically a First Person Shooter and Sports game machine might plug their Beats by Dre headphones into their controller and hear a whole new world of audio that may or may not be to their liking. This is an impending a reality teams will have to think about: boring or substandard audio will be a bigger factor in the success of games than in the past. (Not to in any way suggest the above mentioned genres have poor audio. Quite the opposite: sports and FPS games have pushed game audio technology and quality forward a great deal).
And much like the Wii U; one can assume the headphones will work with DVDs, Movies, and streaming videos. Not only will games benefit from a user’s ability to hear great audio in their headphones, but tv and films will also hopefully see a boost from the new functionality.
Moving on; the SHARE button on the controller activates an interesting feature: “allowing the player to cycle through the last 15 minutes of gameplay to select a screenshot or video clip appropriate for sharing. Media is uploaded seamlessly from the console to other PSN users or social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.”
In addition to being able to show off cool headshots or weird game bugs with friends; the SHARE functionality will allow people like the contributors to this site or others into game audio discussion to share sound studies. Sound studies like the many Damian Kastbauer has done; are video captures of gameplay for the purpose of viewing/listening to the sound and implementation in said titles. Without the need of expensive and complicated video capture hardware and software; many more people will be able to capture snippets of gameplay for the purpose of discussing the pros and cons of specific sound design and technical sound design decisions and implementations. While this sounds like a fringe use of the feature; I think it will be integral and incredibly useful in future discussions and even convention talks on game audio.
Who knows if these features will in fact make any sort of difference in the state of audio in the coming console generation. However, between the above hardware in the PS4 and the rumored sound block in the Xbox One; I think now is a very exciting time in game audio and part of that positive anticipation is due the console manufacturers.