While the gaming graphics have been constantly improving, the same cannot be said about in-game sounds. While there is a lot of investment into voice acting, music and sound effects in high budget games, most games do not take into account how sound should propagate in their environments. It seems that Valve really wants the games to sound better by releasing a powerful Steam Audio SDK for free for everybody to use. It does not even require Steam.
The technology behind Steam Audio was initially developed by Impulsonic under the name Phonon SoundFlow (Phonon is a virtual particle that transfers vibrations). Valve purchased Impulsonic a month ago and all demo videos so far have been released on Impulsonic’s Youtube account. Steam Audio can calculate the effects of occlusion, diffraction and reverb in real time based on the geometry of the scene and the properties of different materials. Another important feature is binaural sound rendering, which calculates how our body and ears affect sound, proving the same spatial clues we use to determine sound location in the real world with just two ears. All of that should be especially useful to improve immersion in VR while using headphones. For complex static scenes there is an ability to prebake parts of sound propagation in the similar way how prebaked lightning is used to improve the visuals with minimal performance impact.
The feature set of Steam Audio and the very open way Valve has released it to the developers sounds very promising for future games. As developers have an easier way to improve in-game audio, we should expect much more amazing sounding games in the near future.