Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: The Coming Revolution In Audio Design

28 September 2009

The Coming Revolution In Audio Design

Design is not merely about changing our objects, but about changing our lives. It is not merely about improving the appearance or utility of our surroundings, but about the way we relate to them, and thus who we are. A revolution in design shakes both inner and outer worlds – and rarely is this more apparent than with new media technologies that reshape the sensory environment of our everyday lives. I recently stumbled across one such innovation – a radical twist in the world of sound engineering – and it immediately spun me into speculation on a bizarrely probable near-future world…

It’s 2015. I’m attending the premiere performance of the Houston Audioplanetarium, a marriage of science and art that guides the audience by the ears on a tour of our night sky’s celestial bodies. Using fantastic new technology, each star and planet’s radio frequencies are detuned to within the range of human hearing, then placed on a virtual speaker within the planetarium’s sophisticated audio software. Sonic qualities of each signal are modulated to trick our brains into assigning a specific, independent position, distance, and velocity for every sound source – animating the simulated sky with a vast choir of outer space’s spooky resonances as if we were actually listening to the night.
The more distant a star, the fainter its humming and moaning. The projectionists isolate constellations one at a time, and we are reacquainted with our familiar myths as they ring out in thick cinematic chords. Our virtual observatory moves through space and there are gasps as the sky comes unhinged and whizzes past everyone, each point of light and its radio howl zooming like a freight train, new stars up ahead announcing themselves with new tones. We have just navigated to the center of the galaxy to catch the opus of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. Then we zip off to listen to the strange beauty of the Crab Nebula, the Cat’s Eye Nebula, the rotary duets of binary stars, the cannonball roar of a supernova.

This virtual voyage is awe-inspiring and terrifying in its scope and realism, opening an entire sense to the realms of astronomy, revealing unexpected relationships between stars and galaxies, restoring us to wonder at the “music of the spheres” ancient science had predicted and modernity had all but forgotten. My mother, blinded by diabetes, cries tears of awe and joy at her first “glimpse” of the night sky in years.

Driving to the airport the next morning, I’m guided by a field of traffic alert signals my car stereo projects into my environment. Developed for pilots, my car’s sensors (in conjunction with a saturating network of handheld electronic devices, mounted civic sensors, and GPS satellites) notify me audibly of approaching vehicles and pedestrians, objects and obstructions in the road, and invisibly-distant traffic jams. Standard issue hardware on the nicer civilian automobiles now creates such a vivid real-time audio environment, every alert placed at actual distance in the virtual sonic sphere, that even the legally blind can drive (they have to pass a hearing exam).

Later, at work, I’m on a trans-Atlantic conference call in which the voices of my European associates seem to come directly from the mouths of their high-resolution holographic projections. I haven’t made a business trip in almost a year, down from two a month just a few years ago. The sense of “there-ness” is so compelling that sometimes I forget we still can’t actually shake on a deal.
If I’m to believe the rumors my friends are circulating, this means a new age for interrogation…a new form of psychological torture to break political prisoners by dangling their loved ones and enemies right in front of them. Fugitives are lured out of hiding by familiar voices (the technology to simulate a person’s unique vocal spectrum has existed for well over a decade). The “fireside chats” of internet media personalities have risen to a whole new level, celebrity spokespeople projected onto the street next to us. Porn stars really whisper in your ear, now.

A few years ago, when the first of these convincing phantasms saturated Hollywood, the surround sound industry disappeared overnight. Now, nobody trusts perception like we used to. Just as Photoshop made us learn to doubt the testimony of our eyes, so too do we now question our hearing. We’re no longer such a naïve culture, but something else has replaced our childlike confidence in the reality of our senses: a rigorous discernment, an eagerness to reach out and touch, a scientific sensibility that – day by day – erodes our assumptions about the nature of “reality” and has created a generation of philosophers.

It’s all due to the innovative work of one company, GenAudio, which in 2008 released a new level of “4D” audio processing software. Founded in Englewood, Colorado in the middle of the 21st Century’s first decade, their AstoundSound technology quickly exploded from its original applications in home theater and music production, rattling and rattled our society to the core, growing a new layer of thought and experience on the scaffold of our wild brains. We live in a new world of sound, and nobody saw it coming. But a few of us had our ears to the ground.
(Written for d/visible magazine.)