Bone Conduction

There is something appealing about the way that a tiny piece of technology can radically alter your experience of listening. Bone conduction - just the name sends a slight chill down my spine. It sounds like a metal spike tapped straight into my skull, conducting electrons beneath the skin. The very idea of bone conduction forces me to become conscious of the calcium structure that holds my flesh upright. 

The technology uses your skull to transmit vibrations to the inner ear all the while leaving your ear canal unobstructed. You can hear the environment around you in addition to the sound playing through the headset. Music, a podcast, or whatever it is - bone conduction casts sound as a layer over your experience. 

Bone conduction has been used in hearing implants for decades, but we're now seeing a lot of commercial bone conduction headphones coming out, making the technology popular for everyday listening. I just picked up a set of bone conduction headphones, and I find myself walking around listening just for the sake of listening. Listening to two worlds overlapped on each other.

We are used to donning headphones and tuning out the environment in order to listen to a piece of music or a podcast. That requirement, to eliminate the surrounding environment, actually prevents me from enjoying a lot of digital content. I simply don't want to tune out my immediate environment. I like being available to people, even on a crowded train full of strangers. 

Furthermore, the city is full of interesting sounds. Could the soundtrack you walk with be an augmentation of those found sounds, rather than a replacement of them? Much the same as driving while playing music in your car with the windows rolled down, the soundtrack of moving through the city is a multi-layered experience with bone conduction.

I'm also fascinated with this grafting of technology to the skull, as an augmented ear. These cross-sections from a Chinese company's audio site seem to suggest that a tiny device can hack into the inner ear and re-program what we hear.  Audio parasites.

Also: this creepy photo which recalls a David Lynch film...

The way bone conduction works is most clearly exhibited by plugging your ears while listening with bone-conducting headphones. It's almost magical. Fingers blocking the ear canal, you can still hear the sound coming clearly through the bones in your head.

Bone conduction offers a way forward for me in the coming onslaught of virtual reality. Don't get me wrong, I love the feel of full immersion in the VR that I have experienced so far. But I'm more interested in how a virtual experience can successfully be layered over our analog experience. Bone conduction allows a co-mingling of real and virtual sound that itself is a largely unexplored, undesigned experience.


The Cave

Devlog 2.2.16

Soundscrapers are forming.
Dreaming of glaciers, they are mere ice crystals dancing in a dark cave.

This room diffuses 13 channels of sound. Controls are via a handheld gamepad, routed through Max/MSP.

An LED cross marks the locus of sound diffusion, where the spatiality of the virtual acoustic room is rendered at its sharpest.

The room is a simulation chamber for imagined and real architectural spaces. Building upon the  SPAT module developed by IRCAM in France, we are able to reproduce architectural spaces convincingly. We use both Ambisonics and VBAP as techniques to render sound sources.

Sound sources can be moved by the gamepad. It is not accidental that we use a gamepad, for gaming is the mode which has synthesized development in the room thus far. We are building small games to test how we perceive sound.

The speakers and insulation materials are concealed by acoustically transparent fibrous sheets. The lack of a visible sound source enables the visitor to be fully immersed in the sound. Sound is treated as a material itself, rather than just an effect projected by a loudspeaker. Ears can be easily deceived.

The cave is formless; those who enter make their own architecture.

(this is an ongoing project by 52-Blue, a collaboration between Nick Sowers and Bryan Finoki, and DEMILIT, a collaboration between Nick Sowers, Bryan Finoki, and Javier Arbona)


What Design Sounds Like

In two days I will be presenting at Design Observer's What Design Sounds Like conference, held at the School of Visual Arts (logically!) in New York.  I am excited to be a part of a great group including Nicola Twilley who will be talking about sound and food in "Sound Bites", Alexander Chen who will be presenting his work on music and code, and numerous others with presentations that sound fascinating. I'll be talking to Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG in the afternoon of the conference about a whole range of topics related to sound and space. On the docket: silent cities, ancient ninja defense systems, quasi-forensic acoustic testing of space, and kitchen sinks that sing.

Although What Design Sounds Like will not be cast live on the web, you can follow along with @DesignObserver .

Relatedly, I have also just started a series of sound walks with Bryan Finoki titled (in)Fringe.  We'll be walking along, over, under, and through the varying edge spaces of San Francisco. Our line of inquiry runs like this:

We're intrigued by what constitutes a sonic fringe physically, culturally, and experientially. Questions we’re asking include: Can the shifts in power of a place be heard, and how (if at all) should we listen to them? How can a place be defined by an edge, or a lack thereof? What do these fringes suggest about the cultural dynamics of a given place?

Our first walk takes us to the Mission District, where we encounter forces of change in the historical and cultural center of the city. We walked a number of the streets in alleys in search of evidence of an "edge" condition - simply put, where the new meets the old, and how they mix (or don't mix) together. Have a listen:

Bryan and I will be continuing the exploration in future posts about the Mission, post-military sites such as Treasure Island and the Presidio, and more. Stay tuned!


Virtual Kabul

I had the pleasure of meeting Francesca Recchia last week while she was visiting the SF Bay Area. She is the author of several books which have come out this year. One of them is The Little Book of Kabul, which follows the lives of several artists living in Kabul over the course of a year. Francesca has been based in Afghanistan now for a few years, and she shared some great insights on life in a world where daily tension is quite palpable, and walking around a city, as much as we enjoy it here in the States, is greatly limited. 

We got to talking about sound sooner than later, and I found out Francesca has written a score for a construction site where she spent a lot of idle time, just sitting and listening to the sounds around her. She said the idea came to her while she was "bored".  Boredom, I believe, is where many wonderful creations begin.

I have always been interested in the sounds of construction sites, from the pile driving at massive building sites to the little pneumatic nail guns popping and hissing when stick-built houses are being framed up. These sounds reveal a lot about the culture of construction, the available technology and labor practices, and the larger economic changes that can sweep across a neighborhood. There is a lot to hear in the noise of a construction site, especially if you live next to one!

Francesca's site in Kabul, a restaurant under construction, was fascinating in part because her score was rich with sound that I could easily imagine hearing. What was more fascinating even was the spatial detail, the layout of the "orchestra", from left to right, front to back.

Here is an excerpt from the score:
{The wheelbarrow enters from the left, across the unfinished door, stumbling over the pink hose.  It is old and rusty; it squeaks its way across the courtyard}

Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak Eeeak eeeak

{A shovel lifts the dirt and scratches the bottom of the wheelbarrow.  The worker with broken fingers mixes the mud to plaster the wall}

Shhhtickkkk Shhhhhhtickkkk Shhhtickkkkkk Shhhhhhhtickkkk

{At the far end of the courtyard, the plastic hammer hits on wood: the frame of a window is coming into shape}

Thud Thud Thud Thud Thud Thud
Thud Thud Thud

{Bits of wood fall on the mud floor, like flapping wings of a lost butterfly}

An attempt at performing the score was in order. Francesca came into the Soundscrapers studio in Oakland, and we just started dropping construction sounds into the spatial mix.

In the sound studio, I have command of an 8-channel 3d sound array, which gave Francesca no small thrill when I demonstrated the array by sending WWII planes buzzing overhead, or when I filled the room with a large jazz ensemble. With our mix of sounds for this little site in Kabul, I think we knew it wasn't meant to replicate the actual experience, but rather prove a small point that a real place can be re-imagined, and re-made, into any number of scenarios.

The construction site itself is a place in transition, going from an existing space (an empty site or an old building) to some place new.

This piece has been composed for binaural playback, which means it is best heard with headphones. Listen:

I stayed truthful to things like the Kishore Kumar Bollywood song from 1969, emanating from one of the construction workers "shitty" cellphones. Other sounds we quickly downloaded from freesound.org (thanks to freesound users: EelkeGood_vibes420, zinzan_101, and monotraum).

I shared an initial mix with Francesca a few days after she left, and she sent a note in reply:

"I like this almost symphonic dimension that this little piece evokes... it is not realistic, but opens to the possibility of imagining Kabul, of thinking about it beyond the sounds of war. This to me is incredibly powerful and fully embodies the spirit of the book."

I feel very much encouraged by this soundscape work, a kind of construction site in itself in terms of a virtual place born out of the fragments of sound left around on the internet, assembled in my 3d sound array. Not quite going the direction of music (see Schneider TM via @subtopes), but staying somewhere in the imaginative world of field recording.

Please visit Francesca's blog and you can follow her on twitter here.