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