New Algorithm Could Make VR Sound More Realistic


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You’re probably familiar with the way good sound design can bring a game or video to life. It can take huge teams of creators hour upon hour to make the audio just right, but almost no amount of time is enough to craft the perfect audio for a virtual reality experience. Sound design has been vastly simplified because of the innate unscripted nature of VR simulations, but a new algorithm from researchers at Stanford could finally change that. 

In scripted media like a pre-rendered 2D video, you always know where sound should come from — the audio levels for each channel never change from one viewing to the next. Even a 3D game has a workable level of complexity thanks to the predetermined parameters of the environment. With VR, there are simply too many variables to create perfect, realistic sound from every perspective. 

Currently, the algorithms for creating sound models come from work done more than a century ago by scientist Hermann von Helmholtz. In the late 19th century, Helmholtz devised some of the theoretical underpinnings of wave propagation. The so-called Helmholtz Equation has since become a major component of audio modeling along with the boundary element method (BEM). 

That’s all well and good if you’re dealing with an environment without too many variables. Virtual reality ratchets up the possible audio models to previously unheard of levels. To make VR sound authentic, engineers would need to create sound models based on where the viewer is standing in the virtual world and what they’re looking at. Doing that with the Helmholtz Equation and BEM would take powerful computers multiple hours. So, far from practical. 

The potential solution comes from Stanford professor Doug James and graduate student Jui-Hsien Wang. The new GPU-accelerated algorithm calculates sound models thousands of times faster by completely avoiding the Helmholtz Equation and BEM. We’re talking seconds of processing instead of hours. 

The pair’s approach borrows from 20th-century Austrian composer Fritz Heinrich Klein, who found a way to generate the “Mother Chord” from multiple piano notes. They call their algorithm KleinPAT in recognition of his posthumous contribution. The video above includes some comparisons between Helmholtz-generated sound models and KleinPAT. They sound very similar, which is the point. You can get almost identical sound from KleinPAT with much less computing time. The researchers believe this algorithm could be a game-changer for simulating audio in dynamic 3D environments.

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Scientists Create Miniature Sun in Wisconsin


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The sun is easy to spot in the sky, and it’s not very far away in astronomical terms. So, scientists have spent a great deal of time studying our local life-giving star. However, the sun is also a nuclear inferno that will eradicate any people and most robots that get too close. To study the star up close, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison built a miniature sun. They call it the Big Red Ball (BRB), and it could help us understand some fundamental solar processes. 

Like most main sequence stars, the sun is a giant ball of hydrogen massive enough to sustain a nuclear fusion reaction. The hydrogen fuses into helium, and helium eventually fuses into heavier elements as stars exhaust their fuel. The sun still has plenty of life left, so it’s mostly hydrogen with about one-quarter helium. 

The BRB uses helium to create analogous conditions to those on the sun, but without all that pesky nuclear fusion. As experiments have shown, it’s extremely difficult to maintain nuclear fusion on Earth. The BRB is a hollow sphere almost ten feet (three meters) in diameter. The team filled that space with helium gas (which again is a major component of the sun) and ionized it with microwave heating to form a sun-like plasma. Powerful magnets confine the plasma, and an electrical current causes the miniature sun to spin a bit like the real one. 

The team has used the BRB to simulate a solar structure called a Parker spiral, which forms as a consequence of magnetic field line shifts on the sun. That suggests the BRB model is a good one. The researchers also noted fast-moving plasma within magnetically weak areas of the mini-sun. These are similar to the small eruptions on the sun that fuel the solar wind, making this the first instance of simulated solar wind in the lab. 

Earth-based experiments like the BRB can help scientists better understand the data collected by solar missions like the Parker probe. By recreating sun-like conditions in the lab like this, we can begin to understand some of the sun’s mysteries. For example, no one knows what causes the solar wind to accelerate away from the sun. The solar wind can affect satellites and ground systems here on Earth, and it may one day be a viable way of traveling around the solar system with solar sails.

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The End of High-Performance Overclocking May Be Nigh


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A little over seven years ago, I wrote a story called “Physics, Ivy Bridge, and the Slow Death of Overclocking.” The argument it made, in essence, was that the realities of process node scaling were steadily going to worsen and overclocking headroom would continue to decline. A recent update from Silicon Lottery makes the same argument, in starker terms.

Silicon Lottery is a website that sells binned CPUs at specific frequencies and voltages, for both AMD and Intel products. Think of it as a one-stop shop for overclockers who prefer to pay for a CPUSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce at known-good frequencies rather than a chip they’ve still got to take a chance on themselves. The company has released a price list for its upcoming Ryzen CPUs, which are currently listed as out-of-stock. Yes, some of these speed grades are listed for cheaper than the actual base Ryzen 7/Ryzen 9 CPUs. No, I don’t have an explanation for that.

Silicon-Lottery-Ryzen

The overall clocks are low, as we expected. There was a profound mismatch between AMD’s clock expectations for Matisse and what the enthusiast community predicted would be possible. AMD told us at E3 that it didn’t expect to gain clock frequency on these chips at all, and that the boost it saw on its 7nm parts was an unexpected win. AMD used those frequency gains for its own parts and appears to have binned aggressively. The all-core boost frequencies Silicon Lottery feels like it can commercialize, at least in the short-term, are fairly low. Demand for the binned higher frequencies dried up early with Ryzen 1, 2, and Threadripper, and a recent post on Reddit (found via THG) by Silicon Lottery indicates the company doesn’t necessarily expect a different outcome this time around.

SL notes that demand for Ryzen chips has been growing and that it will carry them and bin them as long as it can profitably do so, even if the clock headroom is low. The site claims to test aggressively before shipping CPUs, which leads them to advertise lower clocks than some achieve with weaker tests. Personally, I expect an overclocked to CPU to be absolutely as stable as its non-overclocked part before I’d ever consider using it. SL also notes that there’s a silicon difference between the 3700X and 3800X, with the latter hitting speeds roughly 100MHz faster than the former. Using AVX2 raises temperatures compared to not (the small FFT test in the latest version of Prime95 that we used for power consumption testing in our Ryzen 7 review reflected this).

SL then writes:

AMD has done a fantastic job here overall, and we’re very aware this is the start to the end of our company in general. As both AMD and Intel optimize their binning process more and more, overclocking will not be possible as CPUs will boost themselves on their own to the highest clocks possible.

Where’s the Headroom Going?

Two things are happening here. First, the total amount of clock headroom has scarcely budged in years. Ten years ago, a good overclock put you in 3.8 – 4.2GHz territory. Six years ago, a good overclock might be in the 4.6 – 4.7GHz range. Today, modern top-end chips target 4.6 – 5GHz for their own all-core boost frequencies and leave very little room for overclockers to go anywhere else.

These days, winning the silicon lottery doesn’t mean finding a chip that can hit 6GHz, so much as it means finding a CPU that can hold something close to its single-core frequency as an all-core boost frequency. But the entire point of the AVFS implementation that AMD uses is that the CPU already automatically finds and “uses” that additional headroom dynamically, actively, to provide additional performance.

Or, to put it differently: Manufacturers used to have the luxury of leaving overclocking headroom in their products because they didn’t need that headroom to sell you a meaningful upgrade. Now, they do — and they’re tapping what little headroom remains for themselves.

Does this mean the complete end of overclocking? Not necessarily. AMD and Intel could both continue to offer deliberate midrange SKUs with unlocked multipliers and mid-tier prices. Lower base clocks mean these chips would still overclock well, providing enthusiasts with parts they want to purchase for economic overclocks. Properly positioned, these chips fill a need without sabotaging higher product tiers.

But there have always been two groups of overclockers, generally speaking. There’s a community of budget buyers, who overclock with a modest investment in cooling and hardware because it’s a better way to improve performance than just buying the more expensive chip, and a group of high-end buyers who jump for upper-tier hardware and then OC it to improve it more. The second group obviously tends to spend more than the first, and that’s the group that’s most likely to cease existing altogether. Once water-cooling is no longer enough, there’s only one plausible jump left — single-stage freon. And frankly, the work it takes to insulate a motherboard and safely operate a sub-zero cooler (not to mention the cost and noise) are rarely going to be perceived as worth investing in.

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