Thursday, April 04, 2013

Two Sound Ideas: Auralization and Audio Graffiti

Exploriment pointed me to this "song" of the day: Uranus: NASA - Voyager Space Sounds . The idea is to map electromagnetic waves gathered by the Voyager 1 & 2 probes and convert them to music. It's eerie stuff, give it a listen.

From there, I found this playlist which has 16 or so examples of mapping data collected in space to music. One of those videos, however, talks about this process of "visualizing" data using sound and it's definitely worth 4 minutes of your time:

Using the right visualization, or in this case, auralization can make simplify understanding data, recognizing patterns and discovering trends. The classic example of mapping data to sound is the Geiger counter. Though my favorite auralization has to be the now defunct Unix Peep Networking Monitoring Tool. While I never managed to fully set this system up, the concept was brilliant. The application would map network events to sounds you hear in the great outdoors. For example:

Peep represents discrete events by playing a single natural sound every time the event occurs, such as a bird chirp or a woodpecker's peck. The sounds we chose are short and staccato in nature and easily distinguishable by the listener. Additionally, we noted that certain events tend to occur together and found it convenient to assign them complementary sounds. While monitoring incoming and outgoing email on our network, we noticed that the two events were often grouped together, since both types of email were usually transferred in a single session between mail servers. To better represent this coupling between incoming and outgoing email events and make the representation sound more natural, we used the sounds of two conversing birds. Thus, a flood of incoming and outgoing email sounds like a sequence of call and response, making the sound `imagery' both more faithful to our network's behavior, as well as more pleasing to the ear.

Just think: you walk into your office and hear a gentle stream running, and the cicadas chirping away and you know your webserver is running fine. When you start hearing a downpour and bursts of thunder you know you better investigate to see if the mail server is getting slammed by traffic.

It's a shame peep never took off. With the computer processing power we have now, just imagine what kind of eco system you could create and tasks you could monitor?

On a related note, I just recently caught this story on PRX about Concrete Crickets. And what's a Concrete Cricket? Glad you asked:

New Yorkers are hearing things these days — and it is coming from the bushes.

It is the sound of concrete crickets, little devices created by artist Michael Dory that play bits of music and make cricket-like sounds. Dory hides small sound devices in containers around the city, similar to the way graffiti artists spray paint their art on walls without asking anyone's consent.

The crickets are just loud enough for passersby to hear. And like their namesake, the crickets stop chirping when the curious draw too close — thanks to motion sensors Dory installed in them.

It's almost like reverse geocaching: the cache invites people to search for it, rather than the other way around. As art projects go, part of me likes it very much. It's low tech, clever, and simple. A little burst of audio in the right context is going to have a huge impact. On the other hand, I could see how this sort of thing could turn into a nuisance in a hurry. Graffiti, I can be beautiful, inspiring and meaningful, or just plain corrosive. The same could apply to aural graffiti, I suppose.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go listen to Uranus. (Oy, middle school potty humor - sorry, I simply couldn't resist.)


  1. Great idea, engaging something other than our eyes while we are at work, staring at our monitors all day!

  2. Oooh, I bet I could totally rig something up in emacs.

    Here's a crazy, yet possibly useful idea: I could have emacs play various sounds that reference the current file I'm editing. It could count lines of code, number of functions, or some other indication of code complexity, and make more and more noise as things get more and more complex. Hmmm....

    Emacs speak seems like a natural tool to help with this.