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How background noise can ruin productivity - and the gadgets that can help

09 August 2016, 19:00 Seth Porges

Loud noise can have a real impact on our ability to do our jobs. One way to fight this problem? Turn on noise-canceling gadgets. Bloomberg's Seth Porges explains...

For most people, the loud noise of an open office or airplane registers as nothing more than a slight annoyance or distraction. But these sounds can have a real impact on our ability to do our jobs. They can even serve as a direct line to the nervous system and are capable of wresting us away from a physiological state conducive to health, happiness, and productivity.

Humans have a hardwired response to different audio frequencies that comes from prehistoric (and pre-human) times. Back then, if you heard an especially low-frequency sound - perhaps a growl coming from brush - the chances were pretty good that you were about to face a threat.

Similarly, if you heard a high-pitched squeal or yelp, you were probably near an injured animal - and whatever had caused that injury. Experts say these noises can cause our nervous system to think we're in danger, engaging a sort of “survival mode” whereby it’s extremely difficult to focus on spreadsheets and PowerPoints. For some people, the threshold is low enough that even common noises such as office air conditioners or elevators can have this effect.

One way to fight this problem? Turn on noise-cancelling gadgets.

Noise-cancelling headphones have been around for years, but they are a fairly remarkable piece of technology few people understand. The beautiful complexity behind their operation: These headphones silence our world by making noise.

Most models use outward-facing microphones to scan the environment for ambient noise. The headphones then produce an audio wavelength that is the exact negative of what the microphones pick up, causing the sounds to effectively cancel each other out and produce the illusion of silence.

The best-known noise-cancelling headphones are probably the Bose QuietComfort line, which I find produce excellent reductions in ambient sounds while being comfortable enough to wear through a long flight or a full day at the office. The company recently released the QuietComfort 35 update, which brings Bluetooth wireless listening to the staid product line.

According to Dan Gauger, a senior research engineer at Bose, the microphone-assisted active noise cancellation is most effective with low frequencies (remember those “predator" noises), while the headphones’ cushy ear-covering design also “passively” blocks higher frequencies (“injury” noises), much like the bulky ear protectors found on construction sites.

Doppler Labs, a San Francisco-based startup, has taken a different approach to noise cancellation via a new product called Here Active Listening. These wireless earbuds act as a sort of bouncer for environmental sounds, using built-in microphones and an onboard computer to filter the volume of specific frequencies before allowing them to pass through to your eardrums.

The earbuds give users the ability to apply context-specific audio filters that block out the types of noises found in different settings, such as “Office” or “Airplane." Listeners can also manually adjust the volume of different frequency ranges, allowing them to turn down only extreme lows and highs, for example. Various filters also crank up the volume of desirable sounds like human speech, or simply give them such fun effects as “Psychedelic” and “8-Track.”

The earbuds also have the ability to turn the volume of the outside world up by 6 decibels (volume is measured logarithmically, so that’s more impressive than it sounds), effectively turning the earbuds into consumer-friendly hearing aids—or inconspicuous spy gadgets. “It’s what we call superhuman hearing,” said Noah Kraft, Doppler Labs’ chief executive officer. “If you turn on the Human Speech mode and bump up the mids, your ears are going to be that of a creature much more animal than human.”

I’ve been testing this product for a couple of weeks, and I am pleased to report that they work as advertised. While working in crowded cafes and co-working spaces, I found that turning down the volume did a good job of minimizing distracting chatter and background noises. When a friend wanted to talk, I was able to turn the volume of the mid-ranges up, allowing me to hear clearly without even removing the earbuds.

It’s not difficult to imagine this device being particularly useful for people with auditory processing disorders that make it difficult to divine the sound of human speech in a crowded or noisy environment.

Kraft describes Here Active Listening as a “concept car” gadget, released in limited numbers in order to show what his company’s technology can do. A mass-market version, the Here One, is scheduled to come out later this year. It will also be able to wirelessly stream music over Bluetooth while featuring enhanced noise-canceling capabilities. According to Kraft, future versions of the product—or possibly, current versions via software updates—will serve as more fully featured “in-ear computers” that will allow users to control other gadgets via voice-control systems such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

“We were working on this prior to the movie Her, so when it came out we were, like, “No way!” Kraft said of the 2013 science-fiction film in which a man falls in love with a software program, with which he communicates via an ear-based computing device. “But it is great, because it gave us a cultural reference we could point to to explain what we were doing.”

- Bloomberg


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