A knob for noise

05.14.2014

Phones. Tablets. Laptops. TVs. Even washing machines, fridges and rubber bracelets. All fighting a war for our attention, a war fought at the edges of glowing screens.

A never-ending stream of information just waiting to spill right in front of our eyes, each time a device wakes. But our visual system is uniform, sequential and continuous. That means that we have to process information bit by bit. We have limited resources and bits add up exponentially.

It gets too much, too fast. Until it all becomes noise. A type of constant, background noise that is now an integral part of our lives.

From the front of your eyes, to the back of your mind

This is a box that moves the stream of information from your eyes to your ears. A box that plays digital noise.

It offers a new kind of interaction, a synaesthetic one, rather than analytical and linear. The ear, unlike the eye, can process information simultaneously, so, tweets, statuses, posts, check-ins, everything that makes up your stream of information will trigger a specific soundwave. This enables you to hear the information coming your way. It’s what Alex Dong, the maker of choir.io, calls ambient sound monitoring.

By hearing, it’s easier to be aware of the data, rather than actively engage with it. Rather than visually consume the data. And in a world of information overload, things that don't crave for attention, things that sit politely in the corner of the room, also sit in the corner of our eye and in the back of our minds. In our secondary attention.

Things that capture the attention, focus the mind. But things that release, delight.

Russell Davies talked about a box with a simple design, an “on/off” button and a speaker playing 3 channels. Like a radio. It’s a good design principle. In fact, it’s the same design used in black box trading: all the traders had was just a monitor in front of them with some numbers on it and just a red button that said, "Stop."

But precisely because it’s there’s just an “on/off” button, the device provides great amounts of auditory information and affords little interaction. It’s what McLuhan calls a hot medium and means a high definition-low participation medium. And objects that create friction, draw attention. But if hurdles are removed, the interaction becomes fluid, hiding the object from attention.

And the best part is that only one thing needs to be changed: the toggle becomes a knob.

Almost unparalleled in its versatility, the humble knob shows up everywhere. It can be continuous or discrete (a volume knob or a selector switch), analog or digital (volume again, or on/off). It can be finely graded with a scale, used to control water flow through a faucet, shuttle through movie footage, open a door and, if it’s Griffin’s Powermate, it can do just about anything else.

the knob is one of Wired's all time best interfaces

More importantly, a knob is an interface built for rhythm. It ceases control, thus empowering the user to set his own pace. A wonderful control interface.

Play some sweet music, not noisy geekiness

The question is now how to seamlessly translate the loudness of data into something that can be physically handled.

This where some proprietary algorithms come in, looking over two axes - importance and frequency, filtering notifications, assigning different sounds to different types of data. Based on similarity and relevance, soundwaves learn to group together to form, more complex and harmonious sounds. Music, almost.

 

Volume scale is relative rather than finely grained, as is human perception. A turn of the wheel increases or decreases the gaps between groups of sounds. So what the box essentially does, is build quiet gaps in between all that white noise, that is the stream of data.

Boombox or platform?

Sound engineering and a bit of machine intelligence is a space with great potential.

The original plan was to move the stream of information to a box that sits politely in a corner of the room. And transforming it into an audible experience might actually work. But the keyword here is a box — as in, any box.

Because mostly everybody already has a box of some kind — a radio, a stereo, anything that has a volume knob will work (the screen is optional), there’s no need for a new product to replace an existing one. But there is one for a product that will augment an existing one.

So I guess the next step would be a bridge between these two worlds, of pre-existing, manufactured products and digital communications. And with platforms for connected devices, like BERG Cloud, that are positioned right in this space, maybe there is a way to make your make own, old stereo to algorithmically broadcast the sounds of your network. All you need is a knob, a bit of Berg and some code. Wonder how many late nights started with this sentence?

By allowing people to extend the list of devices directly, we stand a chance to make the experience of hearing data more meaningful.

That’s the challenge, I think.