Audio Interfaces: Sound as a source of information on the road, in the office and in the sky

5 min


The culture of European civilization is mostly visual. We are used to the fact that most of the interfaces that we encounter convey a fair amount of information using characters. Sound, as a rule, has only an auxiliary role.

But this is not always and not everywhere.

In many cultures, the sound filling of public space has traditionally not inferior to the visual. Eastern markets are more densely saturated with sounds, which can cause European discomfort. In some countries, the day still begins with the cry of the muezzin, Israeli Jews learn about Saturday using a siren, and the Chinese script, by its nature visually saturated, contributes to the popularity of audio messages in local messengers.

Voice assistants are increasingly appearing in our homes and smart devices. But there are other types of sound interfaces – on the street and beyond. We will talk about them below.


Photo Guillaume de Germain / Unsplash

On the street

Road traffic requires the driver to focus – mainly, it is about visual perception. But it may not be enough. Therefore, many devices designed to maintain safety on the roads use additional – sound – incentives.

Speeding is one of the main reasons why accidents occur. But, as practice shows, drivers often ignore the speedometer. Fortunately, modern cars are equipped with sensors, on the basis of which you can create a complete audio notification system.

With the help of sounds, you can remind the driver of speeding, and also inform him in advance of a potential collision. A study by Chinese scientists showed that auxiliary audio signals significantly increase the driver’s ability to control the speed of the car. At the same time, sound in itself is more effective than a combination of sound and light. In the case of an auxiliary visual stimulus, drivers slow down more slowly.

A similar Taiwanese study, which tested an audio alert system for an impending collision, also showed that the presence of sound stimuli dramatically reduces the driver’s response time to road noise. Sounds help drivers reduce their braking time by at least two tenths of a second — which at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour can be the difference between the life and death of a pedestrian.

Pedestrians also often ignore visual signs designed to stop them from committing dangerous actions. This problem is especially serious in France, where statistics show that in 41.9% of cases people cross the road to a red light. To show how dangerous this behavior is, a local organization installed billboards at traffic lights that emitted the sound of a sharply braking machine when trying to break. A hidden camera, mounted nearby, filmed the reaction of pedestrians to this sound, after which their frightened faces fell on the billboard itself with the inscription "Do not take risks to face death."

Even if sighted people have problems navigating in urban environments, there is no need to talk about people with visual impairments. Tactile feedback from canes and road textures has very limited benefits. Therefore, Microsoft, together with the British organization Guide Dogs, is developing a 3D audio interface that will help blind people navigate.

The prototype of this device, demonstrated in 2017, creates a three-dimensional sound landscape that can be learned to interpret. Using this device significantly reduces the stress that blind people experience when navigating in the city.

In flight

One of the busiest and most complex interfaces you can think of is the airliner's control panel. Despite the scope of actions that modern autopilot systems take upon themselves, you can still get into the pilot's seat only after many years of specialized training and many hours spent in the flight simulator.

Therefore, when a certain element of the dashboard requires urgent attention, visual signals alone cannot be dispensed with. They are necessarily accompanied by speech instructions that explain what you need to pay attention to. Unlike sound warning systems in cars, similar systems in airplanes are used outside of emergency situations – and are simply an integral part of their interface. In American slang, such voice messaging tools are called “Bitchin’ Betty ”-“ Bitchy Betty ”.

Bitchin ’Betty is a collective voice assistant image. However, some Betty voices are better known to pilots than others — for example, the voice of Leslie Shook, a Boeing employee. She voiced the system of the American fighter Boeing F / A-18 Super Hornet.

This Betty is familiar to every pilot who trained and flew the Super Hornet, so when Leslie retired in 2016, many Boeing employees and US military pilots gathered to greet her, who instantly recognized her – even if she had never before. did not meet with her personally.

At the office of the network administrator

Monitoring security and health of computer networks is now largely automated. But the prompt response of the team of specialists to alerts still plays a decisive role in the timely elimination of the threat. Cybersecurity researcher Phillip Maddux proposes to solve this problem through the use of passive audio monitoring systems.


Photo Taylor Vick / Unsplash

Phillip's idea is to create an informative sound environment for professionals. Its content – the intensity and pitch of sounds – will talk about how healthy the system is and whether human attention is required to it. According to him, this will “unload” the visual chaos that monitoring staff face daily – and will help recruit people with serious visual impairments.

On the network you can already find an open source project based on the Signal Sciences firewall API. The solution generates special sound signals when the firewall detects anomalies in network traffic. According to Phillip, such interfaces will become more common.


Additional reading – in our "World of Hi-Fi":

What noise helps to relax, and yet – prevents hearing loss in severe accidents
Listening to informational noise: music and videos that no one should have found
Like the crack of a fire, the creaking of doors and ordinary noise become music
“Finds of an audio man”: sound cards as a way to plunge into the atmosphere of an unfamiliar city
The world's first “gender-neutral” voice assistant introduced
“Everything you read will be used against you”: how rap music got into the courtroom
Open source hearing aid – how it works



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