The soundscape

fri3mar2006—09w062d16%— 20h57m00s—0utc

In which the soundscape is presented and used as an introduction to other synthetic synesthesias.

A few months ago my family got a new van, a Windstar. It’s a pretty good car and, being a luxe edition, has many interesting gizmos. My favorite one is a sensor that starts screeching when you get too close to something in the back.

It is not its human-augmentation side what fascinates me the most, but the possibilities that such a sensor suggests. Why not go crazy and make this a gizmo that truly represents space, in all its subtleties, through sound?

I envision a somewhat thick, solid, black band that you would close around your head, completely covering your eyes and your ears; somewhat like a headband worn too low.

This gadget, the soundscape (scape for short), will simply translate space into sound. Let’s imagine the simplest case. A soundscaper standing in the center of a medium-sized, empty, white, circular room. What would that sound like? Well, as the soundscaper turns, it’d probably be a soft hum in all directions; medium-volumed to represent a medium distance; high-pitched to represent the whiteness of the walls; equal in all directions to parallel the physical reality.

If we increase the diameter of this circular room, the walls move farther away, and thus the (sound) volume will decrease; if we decrease the diameter, the walls come closer and the volume increases. If this room now had a door and it were open, the soundscaper would notice it as it turns around to “hear” the room: it would be a sudden sharp decrease in the volume.

If we now put a black square somewhere in the room close to the soundscaper, it’d sound like a squared speaker the size of the black square, emitting a somewhat loud, low-pitched noise.

Can you imagine it? Yeah, who knows if it would have a practical use (assist the blind?) and it’d probably never be advanced enough to allow you to, say, “read” a book through pure sound, but it sure’d be interesting to use it.

Of course, there’s no reason to stop at sound, maybe space can be represented through smell too (and maybe, just maybe, through taste). We always think of space as something fundamentally visual but that’s only because we’re all so visually biased. There are other possibilities.

And yet, sight is probably the best way to represent space. It’s by far the sense with the biggest bandwith. So much, in fact, that I think at least two other senses (hearing and smelling) can be merged into it. Thanks to sci-fi movies we’re all familiar now with some sort of thermal vision — in which red represents hotness, blue coldness. Hearing and smelling could be added in a similar fashion. Sound could be represented as an overlay of 3d waves expanding rapidly through space. The sound of birds chirping outside would look like a pond under a light rain, only in 3d. And smell could be represented as an overlay of little colored dots. A nubile girl passing by would leave a rainbow cloud of dots behind her.

But the soundscape still sounds the most daring, maybe because the possibility of replacing sight is as frightening as it is exciting. Just imagine, sound as light!

Update August 24, 2006: ABC News’ Humans With Amazing Senses: Blind People Who Interact With the World Like Dolphins and Bats

Update April 24, 2007: Wired’s Mixed Feelings: See with your tongue. Navigate with your skin. Fly by the seat of your pants (literally). I blogged about it here.

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