Valve released a free software development kit today which aims to better simulate how sound bounces around environments. One goal is to improve the fidelity of VR experiences—if we're meant to believe a space is real, it should sound like a real place—but the tech can be used for any kind of game.
The SDK includes features such as "physics-based reverb" and "real-time sound propagation," which are described in the announcement post (opens in new tab). In short, Steam Audio calculates how sound moves through a scene, adjusting the volume and quality (echoey, flat) by taking into account the environment's geometry and materials. A glass pane should reflect a lot of sound, for instance, whereas drywall should produce less reverb. You can see and hear how it handles a simple room in the video above.
The Steam Audio SDK is currently available as a Unity plug-in, but the source can also be integrated into other engines. Epic will be demonstrating Steam Audio in Unreal Engine during GDC next week.
How Steam Audio compares to existing solutions is up for debate (by developers who understand the math, and less so me) but there's nothing stopping anyone from giving it a try: Steam Audio is free for use in all projects, with no royalty fees, and can be downloaded from the project's Github page (opens in new tab).
For an overview of 3D audio tech specifically—especially as it relates to VR—check out Tuan's story on the subject from April (opens in new tab).