Sound Breathing

Raising public’s awareness of noise by visualizing the sound.
Skills

Prototyping
Developing
Research

Team

Samson Hau
Tsahao Yu

Duration

November 2017
2 weeks

Context

Noise Maps of US major cities.

One of the most neglected threats to our well-being is noise exposure. With the ongoing population growth and urbanization, the noise problem is increasing in magnitude. Besides the unwanted sounds, sometimes people also produce sound inadvertently by listening to music at an exceeding volume, or talking too loudly. The potential health effects of noise pollution is pervasive.

However, few people take action to protect themselves from noises, or they only take action under extreme noise exposure.

Research

To discover the design opportunity, we must first deeply understand the noise and its harms.

Potential Impact

Sleep Disturbances
Cardiovascular Disturbances
Hearing Impairment
Impaired Task Performance
Negative Social Behavior

64%

Living in a noisy environment increases risk of hearing damage by 64%

*according to a study by THE LANCET

20%

20% of the population is exposed to levels exceeding 65 dB(A) during the daytime

*according to a EU publication

>30%

More than 30 % of the population is exposed to levels exceeding 55 dB(A) at night

We interviewed people who live or work under some noise to understand why they have not protected themselves from noise.

We found out that (a). people have no clear concept of a safe sound level. (b). People only use noise protection equipments while they notice the noise is noticeably loud, for example, a music festival or an air travel. (c). People don’t protect themselves from the noise in their work or living environment because they assume the environment was not loud enough to hurt their health.

Insights

The harms of noise cannot be ignored. The root cause of the problem of people not protecting themselves from noise is that they don’t even realize the noise in their working or living environment is sometimes harmfully loud. If people were aware of the noise, they could choose to avoid the noise by finding a quiet place to work or using a noise-canceling headphone, they might also actively decrease the noise by turning town the music.

Challenge

How can we provide a product to raise the public’s awareness of noise in their working and living environment?

Design

What is a safe sound level?

It is demonstrated by several sources that sounds under 85dB are generally safe. However, when considering a safe sound level, we should also consider the time of exposure to it. Actually, If our work or living environment is as loud as more than 70dB, 24 hours of exposure to the noise could cause harmful effect in the long run.(Link)

What is our solution?

To reach the goal to make people aware of the noise where they live or work, the sound level must be effectively communicated. At the same time, the information should not be too evident to distract people from their work. This led me to create a lamp with the gentle breathing light to visually indicate the level of various noises. 

I measured the common sound levels in the working and living environment and mapped the volume to the length of the light.

How does it work?

Prototyping

I started by trying to build a prototype with LED lights and a sound level sensor controlled by Arduino. One day I had a suddent thought, why don’t we “fake it, until you make it”? Therefore, I used a mobile phone screen as the light. And I built an Android app to measure sound level and visualize it. After tuning the parameter, the rectangle indicator shows the average sound level of recent 3 seconds, thus it can display a gentle and beautiful motion. Putting the smartphone into the 3D printed lamp, we finished rapid prototyping.

User Testing

With our prototype, we did a small round of user testing with people we interviewed before. We observed that users of our device lowered the sound when the lamp’s indicator showed significant noise.

  • “It reminds me to keep down the volume every time the bar goes up.”

  • “Even though current prototype cannot really be used as a power bank, but that feature is tempting.”

  • “I love the aesthetics of the light and I believe it will help me protect my hearing.”

  • “The lamp helped me realized that the music is way too loud”

Reflection

This project is a good opportunity for me to explore how design could improve people’s well-being and the environment. While looking back, I realized there were limitations that held it back. Firstly, while the testees claimed that this product is likely to raise their awareness of the harmful effect of loud sound. Being aware of the harm, however, can’t sufficiently prove that this helps protecting users’ hearing.  If I had more time, I would monitor their longer term behavioral changes before and after using the products to understand whether it is effective. If not, I will consider adding a notification feature which notifies every time the sound level exceeds the limit. Additionally, the physical harm of noise issue is obvious, but I don’t have a clear vision about how nuance of mental states affect the productivity. I would have consulted some psychologist to make effective decision decisions.

Plus, if this was to be a commercial product, more problems are needed to be considered with scrutiny. I have to prove there is a considerable potential market. However, due to the limited time I had, most interviews were conducted with my friends, whose ages ranges from 21 – 26. Do other people care as much about the sound loudness of the environment? Does the noise also hinder their productivity? Ideally, a thourough and universal user research should be conducted to answer the questions.

postscript

2 years after the Sound Breathing project, Apple annouced several features on WWDC 2019 that focus on the same area. The iOS now monitors the headphone audio level, and Apple Watch can periodically measure the sound level of the environment. Both of them help user understand how long they are exposed to loud environment and the potential harmful effect. We are happy to see someone from the major tech companies step up to address the issue.