The other day I stepped into my apartment elevator and saw a neighbor of mine joking around with a construction worker. “You know what you do with these guys?” my neighbor said to me. He grabbed the construction worker by his bright-colored vest and pretended to shove him out the door. For the past few months construction workers have been causing a ruckus renovating the brick exterior of our 17-story building. My neighbor’s retired; he hangs out at home most days, and has to suffer the deafening noise of old bricks being carved out. The worker, smiling sheepishly, shrugged an apology.
Yet New York City noise is no joke. Noise is New Yorkers’ single greatest quality-of-life complaint. Which is why I was keen to read about an advance over noise-cancelling headphones Sheng Shen presented last week in Budapest, at SIGCOMM 2018, a prestigious data communications and networking conference. Shen, a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois, interested in wearable devices and Internet-of-Things tech, gave a talk on his new noise-cancelling earpiece, called MUTE, based on a paper he co-authored. The prototype device is a “glimpse toward the future,” the researchers write.
Most popular noise-cancelling headphones block sound in two ways: by providing thick cover over the ears and by emitting an anti-noise signal. The headphones generate that signal after embedded microphones detect noise. The flaw in this design is that noise you want to avoid often reaches your eardrum before the headphones have enough time to generate a counter signal. There’s a tight deadline, in other words, and the “penalty for missing this deadline is a phase error,” the researchers write. In essence, “the anti-noise signal is not a perfect ‘opposite’ of the actual sound, but lags behind.”
MUTE avoids this, but at the cost of some mobility. You can’t walk around town with it because the earpiece needs to be paired with a stationary receiver—which my neighbor, if he had the device, might place on his window. It exploits the fact that wireless signals travel faster than sound. The receiver could pick up the construction noise and beam the anti-noise signal to the MUTE earpiece before the sound has enough time to hit his eardrum. An office worker could also stick it on her door or cubicle wall, to mute loud corridor conversations or music. (Alas, just now, MUTE is only a concept. Take note, manufacturers.) Haitham Hassanieh, one of the paper’s co-authors, said, “This is bound to change the way we think of noise cancellation, where networks of [Internet-of-Things] sensors coordinate to enable quieter and more comfortable environments.”
It’s also bound to remind us to ask why noise is so annoying in the first place. It’s actually a complex question, says Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, where he teaches composition, music theory, and cognition at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. “I think there’s a temporal aspect to it: Very quick, very short outbursts of noises are incredibly upsetting, and very long, prolonged noises that obscure clarity, are very upsetting,” he told Nautilus features editor Kevin Berger. Berger (no relation to Kevin), an acclaimed composer himself, explains that context and culture often determine whether one hears noise or not. “If we think about noise as irresoluble, incomprehensible, difficult to pull meaning out of, that would explain the first audiences of Beethoven’s first symphony, who reportedly objected to it as unfathomable noise.”
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.