US Report: Environmental audio from Creative - mixed response

Creative Labs Tuesday unveiled Sound Blaster Live!, its newest technology for immersing users in virtual environment.

The new product, which will be in US stores starting Friday (September for the UK), puts a range of high-fidelity audio hardware on a single board, meaning that 3-D effects -- such as gunfire echoing differently in different rooms and missiles zooming past -- will soon be the norm for games and virtual environments. "We want to fundamentally change how audio is created and delivered to the PC," said Sim Wong Hoo, chairman and CEO of Creative Technology Ltd., Creative Labs' Singapore-based parent company. The Sound Blaster Live! board represents the first step for Creative Labs in its new "Environmental Audio" strategy. The goal: Get software developers on board and using its environmental audio extensions, or EAX, for interactive sounds. "Games are not static, the audio needs to be made in real time," said Dana Massey, vice president of engineering for E-MU Systems which attended the unveiling held on Tuesday. Massey's company, a subsidiary of Creative Technology Ltd., designed the board's workhorse chip, the EMU10K1.

While it sounds great, marketing Sound Blaster Live! -- and by extension, the Environmental Audio technology -- to non-gamers is going to be a hard sell. To go beyond the hard-core gamer, Creative has put several audio utilities in the package, including music recording and synthesis software. "We are going to drive this technology into a lot of PCs," predicted Micah Stroud, Creative Labs' audio product market manager. "This is for the high-end audiophile," said Roger Kay, an analyst at IDC. "Unfortunately for Creative, that might mean small numbers at first."

According to IDC, no more than 10 million PCI-based audio boards -- such as Sound Blaster Live! -- will be shipped in the U.S. this year. Still, if Creative can nab even 10 percent of that number, it will have a hit.

Another reason why it might be a hard sell: Users don't want to open up their PC, especially since many PCs already include decent audio. "This requires that you install a card and buy four speakers for true 3-D sound," said Kimball Brown, an analyst at Dataquest. "Until Creative integrates this in a single box, and makes it a no-brainer, the average consumer is not going to buy it."

But if consumers don't buy, it won't be because the board is lacking. The $200 (£120) board tops Creative's previous Sound Blaster cards and adds a new processor to perform audio effects on its 256 sound channels. For example, if you wanted to simulate a bird flying by in a large room, the processor could replicate the Doppler shift effect by having the bird's chirping change in pitch and echo off stone walls -- all in real time.

In addition, Sound Blaster Live! can support between two and eight speakers and accepts input from CD players, DAT decks or a microphone. Some software developers seem to be sold on the idea. According to Creative Labs officials, more than 200 developers intend to use EAX in their next-generation games and applications. That will help, says Brown. "Getting software out is the real crusher. If the software doesn't support it, consumers won't buy the board."

Creative Labs has tried to get around the old chicken-and-egg problem. The board comes with a long list of preset "environments" for a variety of games. Enter a room in Quake 2 and the settings will cause echoes to seemingly bounce off the room's walls.

That may be enough to spur audiophiles to buy the board before EAX-optimised games start trickling in.