We're Entering the Era of Augmented Hearing and White Noise

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2016-04-26 Print this article Print
Augmented Hearing

The "Sleep," "Relax," and a few other modes capture and integrate some ambient sounds, turning them into part of the white noise. The effect is a more fluid and, for lack of a better term, "believable" white noise.

"Super hearing" simply cranks up the volume, enabling you to hear that fly on the other side of the room as if it was right next to your ear.

Note that it's possible for the "Super hearing" mode to be abused. One could easily imagine the strategic placement of a smartphone within microphone range of a private conversation while running this app in "Super hearing" mode, with a snoop listening via a Bluetooth headset that has no microphone. Add this to the privacy risks associated with smartphones.

Each of the modes has several sliders for precisely customizing sounds. The sliders have strange names and do unexpected things. For example, the customizable sliders for the "Office" mode are "Detach," "Time Scramble," "Unhumanize" and "Volume." You can't predict the effect without trial and error.

The Hear app is a tiny glimpse into a future where we'll be able to pick and choose as well as process noises in our environment to customize exactly what we want to hear. It also presages the use of processed sound to simulate drug experiences, relieve boredom or enhance mood.

The Future of Noise

The way all augmented hearing works is that microphones capture actual sounds in the environment. Then a computer chip processes those sounds before sending audio to the human ear.

Software is able to tease out, identify, separate and individually process different kinds of sound. This can be done with an app, such as the Hear app. But it also might happen in customized hardware.

A new generation of earbuds connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth. You then use a complementary app to control what you hear and what you don't.

The earbuds will give you hands-free calls and music. But they also process and enable the customization of the noise in the environment.

Early products in this space have names including Nuheara IQbuds, Doppler Here and Bragi Dash.

We've all been in a crowded, noisy room and tried to have a conversation. Wouldn't it be great to silence the din of chatter and music and boost the sound of the other person's talking?

Or, conversely, let's say you're listening to a great musician on stage, but the people around you are chattering away. Wouldn't it be great to silence those people and amplify the music? One product in this space, the Doppler Here, actually has a "reduce baby" feature that filters out the sound of a baby crying so you can't hear it. That would be pretty handy during those overseas and red-eye flights, when you need to sleep.

Science has demonstrated that the right kind of sound can enhance creativity and productivity. Intuition tells us that blocking certain sounds can enhance mood by filtering out annoying sounds. I wonder what other mental benefits can be produced with the right kind of noise processing?

Undoubtedly, everyone will want the ability to exert control over the sounds one hears.

This revolution in selective hearing is coming to us in multiple formats. It will be built into phones, earbuds, headphones and more.

And when the custom tailoring of sound is a normal consumer electronics feature—when sounds can be boosted, enhanced for speech and more—hearing aids will become obsolete. Duplicating the functionality of hearing aids will be simply one of the options in one's augmented hearing app of choice.

I would even go so far as to predict that, like people who wear hearing aids, most consumers will get in the habit of wearing augmented hearing hardware in their ears during all their waking hours.

As is often the case, the biggest constraint on this technology is battery power, which is never enough. Despite that limitation, I think we'll see over the next five years the total mainstreaming of augmented hearing.

Technology will let us hear whatever we want to hear, and filter out the rest.

Sounds good to me!


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