Beyond the Stereo: Today’s Cutting Edge Sound Tech

by Chris Mather, contributor,

In the spirit of How We Got to Now‘s Sound episode, where host Steven Johnson sounds off on the history of all things acoustic, we’re taking a look at four amazing innovations in modern sound tech.

Sound from Vision

How can you hear something that has no sound? While it reads like a Japanese koan, this question actually has an answer. Thanks to the remarkable efforts of researchers at MIT, Adobe and Microsoft, we can “see” sound in silent video. Shooting high-speed video footage through soundproof glass, scientists recorded a bag of potato chips (really) as the audio of a man reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” played nearby. Running this footage through advanced algorithms, they were able to reconstruct the audio from footage of the minute oscillations caused on the potato chip bag’s surface. The result has a surprising – though slightly haunting – fidelity. Take a listen here:

Vision from Sound

Elsewhere, scientists have figured out how to do the exact opposite: turn sound into an image. With just the snap of a finger, we can now create three-dimensional maps of entire interior spaces using nothing but sound waves. Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Switzerland achieved the effect by placing four microphones in the Lausanne Cathedral and then recording sound as it echoed off its walls. In order to render the space, computers measured the sound versus its echo in these recordings and then analyzed them through – what else? – advanced algorithms. A rudimentary, but promising image of the space emerged. According to Goethe, architecture is frozen music – and it seems the power to thaw it may be just around the corner. Read more about it here.

Broadband Jams

Speaking of music, sound technology is now allowing musicians to play in time even if they’re not in the same space. Previously, if musicians wanted to play music together, they had to be in the same room – or at least in the same building. Anyone trying to use telephone lines or network connections to jam were stymied by the ultimate rhythm killer: lag. Enter devices like jamLink. They solve the problem of lag – in the audio and engineering worlds, known as “latency” – by reducing device delay to 7 milliseconds. For reference, one flap of a housefly’s wing takes 5 milliseconds, and 10 milliseconds is literally a jiffy. From there, it’s up to the users’ network connections to keep them in time. The one limitation is distance: over 500 miles apart and it’s literally the distance the signal has to travel that will throw the musicians off beat.

Sounds of Silence

But what if you want no sound at all? Well, they’ve built just the kind of the room for you: it’s called an “anechoic chamber”, and the quietest one exists in Minneapolis, Minnesota at a place called Orfield Laboratories. At -9.4 decibels, the room is so quiet that sitting inside the only noises you can hear are your own organs — heart pumping, stomach churning. They say that the silence is so unnerving that most people can’t last longer than thirty minutes. Thankfully, the room has a practical purpose beyond mild torture: manufacturers use the sound-dead space to test the decibel readings of their products. Read more about it here.

How We Got to Now: Sound airs Wednesday, November 12 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.