Last month’s recap ended by citing one expert’s opinion (John Kirk) that the future of Apple is potentially intimately entwined with acoustics. His article, “Apple’s Future is Ear” from Tech.pinions provided a detailed analysis of the historical and current events leading to his conclusion. It’s obviously a clever title. To summarize, the author thinks that Apple is paving the way for an audio user interface accessed through the soon to be released Apple AirPods. This is not as far fetched as it sounds. Siri had an early lead in this area and currently Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Now personal assistants are gaining popularity. What didn’t do well was the visually based system called Google Glass. Due to its invasive nature, people who wore them became known as “Glassholes.”
With all the negative press about Apple these days, I was concerned that Kirk’s lengthy analysis might be fundamentally flawed so I took the time to carefully reread the almost 7,000 word post. I came away even more convinced that the naysayers do not understand Apple’s core values when it comes to innovation. Buried right in the middle of Kirk’s article is the section called “Socially Awkward.” In it, he says “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that resistance to the new AirPods is anything new. There has never been a meaningful change that wasn’t resisted by self-righteous, holier-than-thou, know-it alls” and goes on to list the “technologies” that have fallen into the same category such as the cell phone, Walkman, radio, automobile, bicycle, phonograph, and kaleidoscopes, and books. “Novels were considered to be particularly abhorrent. In 1938, a newspaper ran an article with some top tips for stopping your kids from reading all the time.”
It’s true that Siri is not up to the job yet, but as Kirk points out, Apple has always had a long-term plan and the benefits would transform the technology world… again. A few of the benefits of an AirPods based interface could include:
Walking instructions – Which are in their infancy, but on their way… It’s not a good idea to look at a screen while walking.
Spatial awareness – They’ll remind us to take the mail with us when we leave the house, and to buy toilet paper when we pass by the local supermarket.
Contextual awareness – Sensors in the device will know if we are in conversation and will break in only with the most important verbal notifications.
Kirk mentions many more and the quotes he uses to support his assertions are wonderful. The entire piece is a far cry from the negative knee jerk reactions that are filling the Apple news outlets lately. Overall, the Tech.pinions website seems to be true to its name. It has “the singular vision of providing the technology industry with quality opinion based columns.” They also explain that they “only allow contributions by those who have credible, respected, original, authoritative and informed opinions on the technology industry.” From the balanced, high quality articles they post, I believe them.
April’s posts had a little something for everyone. It started with some business wisdom from pop superstar Gwen Stefani in the post, “The Key to Creativity – and Success – Is Truth.” Her message about how critical it is to be truthful in the moment in both professional and personal life is very inspirational. With so many recent news stories about untruths (VW diesels, politics, corporations, etc.), it is refreshing to hear about her commitment and how it has contributed to her success.
Another series of posts in April were focused on acoustics. It is amazing how many areas it touches in our lives. The post “From the NY Times – Dear Architects: Sound Matters” explored the importance of soundscapes. There was also a five day series of articles on acoustics which covered a wide variety of acoustic phenomena and applications.
There are so many uncommon applications for acoustics that here are five more that are even more unusual than the first five.
The Human Ear Generates Sound – Even more amazingly, research has shown that there are more nerves going from the brain to the ear than from the ear to the brain. It’s called Otoacoustic Emission and can be evoked through stimulus as well as be generated spontaneously. The Acoustical Society of America even has a paper on their website that explains how the ear can be used as a musical instrument and provides audio examples of the process.
Automotive “Active Sound Enhancement” – Some cars have an identity crisis. They are too loud AND too quiet. The solution is to add both a noise cancellation system and a system to ADD engine noise via the car audio system. For example, the 2017 Nissan Maxima website states: “Active Noise Cancellation uses microphones in the front and rear of the car to monitor unwanted noise and help cancel it out. Maxima’s Active Sound Enhancement brings a more purposeful engine note into the cabin – music to any enthusiasts ears.”
Gunfire Locator – This is not surprising in itself, but according to The Verge, GE has created a smart streetlight that includes the computing hardware to localize gunfire. If a $2.50 microphone (also surprising) is added, ShotSpotter’s software does the necessary signal processing and reporting.
Acoustic Rail Bearing Proactive Failure Detection – When a railcar bearing fails, it can derail a train so the payoff from detecting this problem early is huge. The “old timers” who work in rail yards can hear the death scream (aka acoustic signature) of impending rail bearing failure. It took almost a decade to develop the technology, but the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, CO built TADS®, the Trackside Acoustic Detection System, to automate the process. In the photo below, that’s me in front of the six microphone array which was a lot more expensive than $2.50 / each.
Robo-Clarinetist – A robotics team from the University of New South Wales built a robot to play an unmodified clarinet. It plays considerably worse than a human player, but the YouTube video is fascinating. This one was courtesy of the website “Listen To This Noise” written by Andrew Pyzdek (Pi), a PhD candidate in Acoustics at the Pennsylvania State University. If you found this post interesting, you might want to check his website out.
To end the week, here’s an acoustic blast from the past. I still get a thrill when I hear the music from the original Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It turns out that there is a group of gamers who still try to achieve the shortest time through the entire game, called a Speedrun. The record holder just beat his own record with a time of 4:57.260 and he was thrilled. It’s worth watching the whole video to see someone get so excited about an achievement. Interestingly enough, the Speedrun time tracker has a heart rate monitor and his heart rate reaches 171. All I can say is Holy Cow!
Over the years, I’ve come across some very strange and fascinating uses for acoustics. Here are my top 5 favorites.
Acousto-Magnetic Security Tags – Those little tags that are used to prevent theft in stores use a passive acoustic technology. A thin strip of metal is acoustically tuned to resonate at 58 kHz. When exposed to an oscillating magnetic field at 58 kHz, magnetostriction causes the strip to vibrate which alerts the scanner at the store exit. Applied Science has a great video explaining the process in detail.
Satellite Acoustic Testing – Acoustic levels during launch can exceed 154 dB so satellites are tested at high acoustic and vibration levels to insure survivability. It used to be done with massive acoustic horns driven by nitrogen, but now levels as high as 147 dB can be generated by a system called Direct Field Acoustic Testing (DFAT®) that utilizes concert loudspeaker arrays. Now that’s rock and roll!
Long Range Acoustic Device LRAD (aka the Acoustic Cannon) – Originally an acoustic hailing device, it became famous when it was used to repel pirates attacking a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia. According to Wikipedia, it is used by maritime, law enforcement, military and commercial security companies to send instructions and warnings over distance. LRAD systems are also used to deter wildlife from airport runways, wind and solar farms, nuclear power facilities, gas and oil platforms, mining and agricultural operations, and industrial plants.
Acoustic Tractor Beams – I wrote about these in 2015, but they are worth mentioning again because the technology is so amazing. Recently, they have found use in containerless processing, acoustic tweezers, and acoustic levitation (Acoustophoresis).
Acoustic Refrigeration (aka a Thermoacoustic heat engine) – I saw one of these in operation at a laboratory in New Mexico years ago. Strangely enough, Penn State made a unit for Ben and Jerry’s back in 2004 which made the news on NPR. 190 dB at 100 Hz is definitely an impressive way to keep your ice cream cold.
If you’re interested in more, there’s actually a book about the science of the sonic wonders of the world called The Sound Book by Trevor Cox. It covers phenomena like incredible reverberation, ringing rocks, barking fish, singing sands, and extreme quiet. Acoustics really is incredible.
Bad audio seems to be everywhere these days. From technical webinars recorded on cheap headsets to videos recorded using a smartphone’s built-in microphone, there are some truly bad examples. Problems can include clipping, distortion, background noise, loudness issues, buzz, hiss, and poor room “ambience” just to name a few.
The best solution of course, is to start with a good recording. Make sure presenters use a decent headset or add a clip-on lavalier microphone. Sometimes though, previously recorded audio must be fixed and that’s where iZotope’s Audio Cookbook can help. I’ve used their RX Audio Editor for many years to restore old recordings, but it took quite a bit of time and experimentation to learn the art. The Audio Cookbook provides Recipes to repair common audio problems based on a step-by-step approach. For example, to reduce background noise from dialog recordings, the recipe starts with corrective equalization, then explains how to use the Dialog option for the De-Noise module, ending with suggestions on how to preview various Reduction settings. All-in-all, a wonderful explanation of a complex process.
If you’re interested, their RX products are on sale until April 28th for around 30% off. Their “Plug-in Pack” is an especially good deal for only $99. I have no professional relationship to iZotope, but think highly of their solutions. After 20+ years of working with dynamic signal analyzers and acoustics, this is high praise.