October 04, 2004

Herman-Miller Pink Noise Cubicles

Herman-Miller has started marketing a cubicle noise cancellation system (PDF) that produces pink noise. Pink noise sounds like white noise to the human ear, and thus effectively masks a lot of the background noisy frequencies of people talking and typing, thus making open office plans feel less open. H-M's solution is as follows:

Small speakers embedded in the “petals” that attach easily to the top of Resolve tall poles broadcast the patented spectrum.


Quiet Technology™ sound masking attaches to furniture, so efficient
coverage results from targeting only those areas of the space that
require sound masking.


Quiet Technology achieves these results by delivering an
Articulation Index (AI) of .2 or less, meaning that few words
(20 percent or less) spoken by people 12 to 16 feet away
are intelligible.

Remember the noise generators that used to sit in the corners of conference rooms in the 80s? (Or at least they used to be in conference rooms I was sitting in at the University of Michigan). I find that the reappearance of noise cancelling somewhat ironic, considering how much effort was spent on making open office plans with highly reflective exposed brick surfaces in the 90s, but it's also a recognition that people work differently now and that open office plans and a semblance of privacy need to coexist. It's interesting to see the privacy pendulum swing of office architecture: from 1900s tiny offices to 1920s Taylorized open work plans to 1960s cube farms to 1990s open offices, now back to some kind of privacy-centered idea.

This seems like a great opportunity for active noise cancellation (which is probably hella hard to do outside of headphones, but maybe someone's working on it) and using Bluetooth phone-sensitive cube walls to modulate the level of noise based on the number people in the vicinity, or feedback microphones that measure sound levels and adjust the volume of the pink noise dynamically (if that's appropriate for this kind of noise). And it's also time for someone to start writing pink noise Muzak. As I write this, I'm listening to Königsforst by Gas, which may as well be "music for pink-noise enabled office spaces."

Even further tangentially, H-M PDF starts with an interesting history of the use of sound-cancellation in office environments:

Early sound-masking systems installed in buildings in the 1960s simulated the sound of air moving by electronically filtering random noise produced by gas-discharge vacuum tubes. Loudspeakers in the ceiling distributed the amplified noise signal throughout the office. However, making human speech unintelligible required a volume level so high that the sound masking itself became a distracting annoyance. In the 1970s, electronically generated sound masking using frequency generators that shaped sound to better mask speech became more practical and worked well when installed correctly. Ten years later, researchers began studying 1/f noise, the phenomenon also known as “flicker” or “pink” noise. Targeting “pink” noise to match the frequencies of human speech raised the threshold of audibility just enough to mask intelligibility without requiring the higher volumes used in earlier systems.
Posted by mikek at October 4, 2004 05:11 PM | TrackBack

Blackholemedia has a nice little pink noise generating app (for osX)

I use it all the time. It takes a minute for the noise to fade into the background, but it really works once you get used to it.

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