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

NEWS ANALYSIS: Augmented hearing gives you total control over the sounds of your environment. And it's coming to an ear canal near you.

Augmented Hearing 2

We live in an attention economy. Every Website, game, video, TV show, meme and social media post demands your attention. But success in this world is based in large part on your ability to direct your attention to productive tasks.

Author Cal Newport calls "Deep Work" the secret to achieving great things.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that ambient background noise—the kind you'll encounter at a local coffee shop—measurably boosts creativity and productivity.

And this idea definitely resonates with me. As a writer, I concentrate for a living. But as I'm crafting words in my head, I find the cognitive load vastly higher if two people in the room are having a conversation or if someone is talking on the phone. I also get distracted from annoying sounds outside—for example, a neighbor's dog spends much of the day barking.

Distractions such as those are devastating to my craft.

The solution for me always has been to play some kind of white noise or ambient music—some sound that's constant and pleasant and puts annoying sounds in the background. Or I to go work in a coffee shop, where I always work better than I do in an office, even a quiet one.

The same goes for sleeping. I can sleep well when it's quiet. But as a digital nomad, I sometimes live in cities where the sounds of car horns and sirens and yelling can keep me up at night. Sometimes live in the country. I recently lived in Cuba, for example, and in a couple of AirBnB apartments outside of Havana, it felt like the roosters were going out of their way to prevent me from sleeping past 4 a.m.

And again, white noise saved the day—or the dawn, in this case—which I often play from an iPad app and helps me sleep when it's noisy.

But the whole white noise industry, from white-noise machines to white-noise apps, is about to get disrupted by something far better: Let's call it augmented hearing.

Of Course, There's an App for That

The past few years have seen the emergence of a smattering of cloud-based white noise sites that simulate coffee shops. Sites such as Coffitivity and Hipstersound let you not only choose the ambient sounds of a coffee shop, but also specific locations such as Brazil or Paris. A site called Coding gives you the sounds of a room full of developers writing code. There are many others.

These sites are nice. But they're basically just recorded and looped sounds. The new world of augmented hearing will replace canned sounds with the digital processing of actual sounds.

A free new app called Hear - advanced listening for iOS launched this week from Reality Jockey Ltd. The app offers augmented hearing in seven customizable varieties.

You use it with your existing headphones or earbuds. I use it with my noise-canceling Bose headphones for maximum effect.

Most of the Hear modes are gimmicky parlor tricks that accidentally simulate horror movie soundtracks or even drug experiences, according to tech blogs quoted on the Hear page. For example, the trippiest, most psychedelic mode is called "Office." It transforms every actual sound into a mesmerizing nightmarish drone sound and offsets it in time.

A mode called "Happy" is by far the most bizarre. It takes ambient sounds and repeats them in echoes of higher and lower pitch.

The "Talk" mode partially auto-tunes human speech. So if you're talking to somebody, their sentences become harmonized into song.

But other modes are actually useful and interesting—especially what they promise for the future of "augmented hearing."

One of my favorites is called "Auto Volume," which silences ambient noise but turns up and clarifies human speech. It's great for working around the house where you want to concentrate, but also want to be available to interact with family members.

The "Sleep" and "Relax" modes give you good old-fashioned white noise, but also integrates actual sounds into the track. This is a powerful trick. Canned white noise generators ignore or drown out actual noises in the environment.