Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Targeted Sound

Somewhat tangential to this post, but interesting nonetheless. Above are two images relating to an anatomical park in Germany. The designer created a walkable ear. The top photo is a satellite shot during construction. The image below is a rendering of the park by the creator, artist Jaroslaw Kozakiewicz. Read more about this in Metropolis.

Last night, I woke up to what I thought was an alarm. A steady Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Slowly coming to, I realized it was a truck backing up. For a very long time. At 4 am. It made no sense, but once identified, I was able to put a pillow over my head and go back to sleep.

This morning I read a piece in the latest issue of Wired about another form of intrusive, urban noise. Writer Clive Thompson begins the piece by recounting a recent day in New York:
Strolling down the street in Manhattan, I suddenly hear a woman's voice.

"Who's there? Who's there?" she whispers. I look around but can't figure out where it's coming from. It seems to emanate from inside my skull.
In a sense, Thompson is right. The sound was inside his skull, but it did not originate there. It was placed in his brain through a relatively new technology known as hypersonic sound, a laser beam that can emanate noise into a person's skull from up to 150 feet. Thompson had walked into the laser stream advertising a new show on A & E called Paranormal States. The Gawker site also reported this advertising phenom and snapped a shot of the device sending the sound wave:

Elwood G. Norris of American Technology Corporation is one of the pioneers of HSS. Here is how he describes the technology on his website:

The HyperSonic® Sound technology gives you the ability to direct sound where you want it and nowhere else. With the combination of an ultrasonic powered emitter and a proprietary signal processor/amplifier, HSS® can focus sound into a tight beam for optimal sound directionality and intelligibility. Similar to a beam of light, HSS uses ultrasonic energy to “shine” your sound on a very specific area. HSS converts music or voice into a complex ultrasonic signal prior to amplification. Once emitted, the converted sound forms a sound column in front of the emitter, which remains focused as it encounters a listener located in the narrow column of sound.

The directional focus of the HSS technology can be used to:

Deliver sound to areas, which are either physically impossible to access or too costly to install conventional loudspeakers

Isolate sound to a specific region or person

Communicate highly intelligible messages over long distances

Move sound around a room in real time

A screen shot from ATC website illustrates the difference between HSS and regular loudspeakers. Interesting that the individual is referred to as a "target" for sound.

This raises an interesting question of privacy rights and noise pollution. Is it appropriate, or legal, to beam noise into a person's ear as they walk the city streets? Can you rent the air rights to a city block the way you rent the space on a billboard? I'm sure residents in the neighborhood would object vigorously to a loud speaker pumping out an advertisement. Isn't this the same idea, just on a more intimate scale?

HSS is not the only way our brains are being breached in the name of urban advertising. Neuromarketers are using high-functioning fMRI scans to record an individual's emotional reaction to promo spots. A 2007 article in Business Week titled This is Your Brain on Advertising wrote about tests being conducted in Great Britain. The results of this brain research are being used to better place billboards and advertisements in an effort to illicit a more authentic, emotional response from the individual:
The result? Advertisements for popular "alcopop" vodka beverage WKD from Torquay, England-based Beverage Brands elicited vigorous brain responses, while ads for the Red Cross and reliable old Tetley tea produced much less reaction. The takeaway, says Calvert, is that ads "congruent" with their environment outperform those that are "incongruent."

Viacom Brand Solutions is convinced. Agostino di Falco, the company's director of research and insight, says the study fundamentally changes the way advertisers should be thinking. Marketers, he says, must consider more than ever the viewing context of each ad.

Which means, in short, that as we stroll the streets both our visual and auditory experiences are being highly manipulated. I see a new market for HSS-blocking ear phones.