Designing with Sound

Designing with Sound

I went to a recent UX Book Club Meetup (Calagator) given by Amber Case. She spent two years as a fellow at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society studying the interaction between humans and computers.

First off, the talk was given in a really cool spot I’d not been before. A converted 1900’s fireboat house turned into the Boathouse Microcinema. It’s located under a waterfront overpass heavily cross-crossed with active rail lines and inside a non-descript red door in a sketchy industrial neighborhood surrounded by homeless camps.

Inside were the artist spaces for a number of film, music, and art productions.

This talk, however, was focused on her recent co-published book on the use of sound in modern appliances and technology.

She covered a lot of interesting topics.

  • Most of design in public is visual. How do we do public design for sound?
  • How do you feel sound? Low frequency can be felt, but requires high volume. Previously this has been limited by tech that distorts too much. But now we’re finally able to push high volume, low frequency sound without the high distortion.
  • You cannot have an uber-solution or norm for using sound in all devices. People try again and again, but there is no one size fits all.
  • Hospital devices are regulated to frequencies in the most optimal frequency hearing ranges. This is both a blessing and a curse – alarm fatigue
  • Can we have an alphabet of frequency?
  • Spectra iPhone app for the iPhone does live spectral analysis/visualization of sounds around you. Experiment and record places you go and see what you find.
  • Altitude on a plane makes salty+sweet tastes actually distort/deaden. So they played certain sounds with certain dishes to augment the food taste and ‘restore’ the proper flavor.
  • Sound isn’t like your eyes. With eyes you can close your eyes or look away – you can’t just close your ears when you hear something. This makes the sounds our devices/world makes much more important to pay attention too when designing things. NYC is a loud cacophony.
  • megaphonics of the late 18-1900’s – art to make loudest sounds possible.
    • One experiment of having 5 marching bands playing towards each other at the same time.
    • Corvallis group is re-doing that experiment
  • Open office spaces are bad! Open concrete restaurants are stylish – but bad!
    • Service workers are exposed to 90+ decibels for hours
  • Loudness fatigue is a thing. Tiredness and irritability rise. Documented as ‘alarm fatigue’ or ‘alert fatigue’
    • See earplug links below she recommends
    • base traps and sound absorbing panels
    • Audimute
  • Cisco hold music
    • Fellow did a podcast that said when he was diagnosed with cancer, he’d go listen to this hold music to feel better.
    • Most phone audio compression algorithms are tuned for the best voice response. This means almost all ‘normal’ music sounds horrible when run through those compression algorithms. That’s why orchestral music sounded terrible.
    • Cisco hold music, however, used lots of electronic tones that turn out to map very well to those algorithms. Done by accident, but actually sounds better than orchestral or live bands due to the phone compression.
  • Non-places
    • With advent of modern cities, these places came into being.
    • Places where you enter and have no identity. Stores went from personal encounters for goods with people to places where you are an anonymous shopper.
    • industrialization created dehumanizing non-spaces everywhere
    • mooji music
  • Steven Wolfram “New Kind of Science
  • Sound Design for Designers – book
  • Two Trains” inequality in NYC subway. A project that tries to ‘sonify’ data.
  • Tips for better design:
    • Use better equipment when reproducing sounds on your devices. Better speakers, better recordings, etc. Sawtooths/etc are bad.
    • Particle physicists – they sonify their data to know when something interesting happened in a particle collision. Added little chimes and upsweep sounds to indicate desired types of particles were found.
    • Incomplete chord progressions get people’s attention. We look up to see why the upwards/downwards sequence stopped before completing.
    • Notification chime that listens to db rating around it and chimes just above the ambient noise it finds itself in. That way it’s not too loud/quiet for wrong environment.
    • We have all-or-nothing privacy settings. This is bad. We need a middle-ground. Example: for gps you might want exact location. For many purposes, however, just a city or country is sufficient. We need to make ways for us to share only what is needed and no more.
    • Remove sounds – motors, HVAC, hair driers, etc – quality is communicated sometimes as the lack of sounds
      • Dyson devices (fans/hair driers) show people will pay BIG premiums for less sound.
      • We put foam in car doors to deaden sound
      • Pay close attention to component fit – poor fitting = rattling
      • Use containerization to absorb sound. All the blenders in Jamba Juice (Blendtek) have shell containers to seal in the sound. And they charge an absolute fortune for them and get it to protect workers hearing.
      • High quality things are category breakers – not killers due to high price. People will pay for these devices.
      • Apartment floors? Can we soundproof them better?
      • You’ll make a mint if you can fix super-loud leaf blowers
    • Allow sounds to be turned off or changed into a different sense
      • For phones, we turn off beep and use buzz/vibrates instead. Much better
    • Tiny homes sound great – until she tried it. They were WAY too noisy. Everything is in one space and makes noise. This is why Japanese appliances stress silence so much.
    • Tech can communicate, but it doesn’t need to actually speak. Voice speaking is tricky
      • Don’t do ‘universal design’. One size does not fit all. Nor does it fit all cultures/contexts. Thinking you can come up with one motif of sound for all your entire product line is a terrible idea and fails.
      • Roomba vacuums went from a few simple tones to indicate stuck/complete/etc to actually using voice. This was STUPID. extra costs of localization + unnecessary and not as intuitive/easy to hear.
    • Designing with Sound book
    • Experiment: she used a contact mic on umbrella to hear rain. Didn’t sound like rain at all!
    • To make big sound from small phone, old technique is to calculate cavity resonance of the phone and play sounds to resonate the case as well.
    • Barbican Waltz
    • Watch out for serious privacy issues. People could turn on Live Listen on their Airpods. Then, they’d leave the room with their phone in the room while leaving their airpod buds in. They could hear everything said in the room through the phone transmitting it to the airbuds. Effectively creating unknown surveillance through the phone.
    • Abelton 10 – simply record a few basic piano chord progressions and time stretch them. Amazing sounding
    • Being Mortal – by Atul Gawande
    • Paro Robotic Seal – This therapy doll for alzheimers patients worked stupid well after attempts with more human-like models or animals. Turns out, the unfamiliarity with a seal means the uncanny valley for seal not the same as for people.
    • Open thinking time:
    • She talked about fact people walk around now without talking/interacting. Terrible isolation. My idea: how about headphones that bleed into neighbors as you walk past them?
    • Robert Moses vs James/Jane Jacobs
    • Does simply sticking to ambient music isolate you?
    • Oregon Dill Pickle comics on Oregon history


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