I usually write about practical things here: techniques, tips, plugins, sound design/soundtrack analysis, and many more. But, today, allow me to write about a more conceptual subject: what happens when our devices get too quiet?
You’re probably thinking “how the hell did he came up with this question?”. Well, a great article from FastCompany website, called “Why Sound Is Digital Design’s Fourth Dimension” (written by Christian Cantrell) made me wonder if the more quiet our gadgets, cars, devices, apps, etc.; the more we need to add artificially designed sound to them.
Let me explain: over the years, our technology evolved and the natural sound of motors, moving parts and friction started to disappear. Examples? The sound of old modems connecting to the internet, 5.25 inch diskettes being read and ejected, the computers loud fans, the old mechanical keyboards, the sound of the mechanical shutter of an old photo camera, and (in the near future, we hope) the traffic noise. All gone. Is this good?
In some cases, yes. Some noises can be really annoying and create difficulties to concentrate and think. I may be an extreme case, but I LOVE quiet places, where I can focus on what I’m doing, instead of paying attention to each sound and where’s it coming from. I usually disable all the sounds from my computers and cell phones (unless I’m doing a case research for some project). But that’s me. Many people need some noise. For some reason, it helps them concentrate.
So, I ask again: should we add artificial designed sounds to our devices? What happens to us when everything gets too quiet.
Christian has some cool ideas about this:
In some cases, it might be considered a matter a safety. Although there’s something extremely seductive about gradually reducing the noise of traffic to nothing more than displaced air and rubber against asphalt, when moving at low speeds through areas where there are likely to be pedestrians, many believe that electric cars should be required to broadcast their presence through an auditory alert. In other cases, personal privacy might be the concern. Without physical shutters to snap open and shut, and film to advance from spool to spool, some believe that digital cameras should be required to make enough imitation racket that people in the immediate vicinity will know that a picture has just been taken.
So, yes. I agree with him. We need sound. Not only due to the reasons stated above, but also because sound makes us interact and connect differently to our stuff. We can create an emotional correlation according to the noise emitted by a particular device. The startup chord sound from the Mac computers is a good example (and has a great history behind it, read it here).
Also, the coolest thing about adding artificial sound is that we can take out all the annoying sound, and make things sound the way we want: giving feedbacks and interactions on only the most important and interesting actions.
Therefore, once we’ve finished reducing—or even entirely eliminating—the noises that machines and devices have to make, and once we’ve removed the noises that we’ve come to believe machines and devices should make, what’s left are the most interesting sounds of all: those which we actually want them to make. Noise becomes an engineered aesthetic; an essential fourth dimension of design; a collection of auditory cues with the potential to improve our interactions, and even help facilitate emotional connections.
Although many of us seldom use our phones for actually talking to each other anymore, we take it for granted that we can make and receive voice calls when necessary, and that we’ll be promptly notified of time-sensitive events like messages, appointments, and navigational instructions. Since devices like phones, tablets, and now smart watches are also sophisticated media devices, we also expect to be able to listen to audio books, music, news, and podcasts. These are all audio capabilities that I would put into a category called “essential sounds,” or sounds that, without which, a device would feel broken, buggy, or woefully lacking in functionality.
The more interesting category is secondary sounds, or sounds which devices optionally make for no other reason than to augment our interactions with them. One of the best-known examples is probably the “keyboard clicks” preference that most mobile operating systems support.
Features like keyboard clicks and haptic feedback (in this case, your device vibrating as you tap a virtual key) aren’t just attempts at emulating the tactility of a physical keyboard; they’re also attempts to both improve accuracy, and increase engagement, by activating more senses. Although, like many other people, I find keyboard clicks incredibly annoying, I also find that they somehow help keep me oriented while I type, and while I generally turn them off out of respect for those around me, I do enjoy engaging my ears, and/or my sense of touch, while interacting with a phone or tablet.
When we talk about this “secondary sounds” category, things get interesting. Think about how sound design is misused in your daily routine. All the things that could have better auditory feedback, more pleasant and efficient sound response. Think about all the sound we could be studying, creating and designing.
Designers and companies
should need to pay much more attention to this. Because, yes, sound is digital design’s fourth dimension and ignoring this will make your product less appealing and your marketing inefficient.
If you want to know more about this, the book “The Sonic Boom” (by Joel Beckerman) is a good start.
Mauricio Ruiz – www.mauricioruiz.me