Acoustic ecology and #soundscapes: concepts in design

Earlier this year I wrote a multimedia and technology review for the Art Libraries Society of North America [ARLIS/NA] on a German-based mobile app called Mycity, Mysounds. The app was developed in-house by ZKM | Institute for Music and Acoustics as a tool for capturing, exploring, and sharing the sound characteristics of a city. By harnessing the audio recording and mapping service features of a smartphone, users are invited to capture sounds in precise locations to create sound maps, audio walks, and other interactive sound caching works. It was my first time learning about the concept of a soundscape, which in simple terms can be described as a sound or combination of sounds that forms an immersive environment. Those who study soundscapes are scholars in acoustic ecology and are interested in sounds created from various sources, including: biophony [sounds of living things]; geophony [sounds of non-living natural elements]; and anthropophony [sounds of humans in the environment]. To add to this discussion, it’s also important to clarify the term “immersive environment”, which most dictionaries will describe as an artificial, interactive, computer-created scene or ‘world’ within which a user can immerse themselves.

Soundscape: a sound or combination of sounds that forms an immersive environment.

Immersive environment: an artificial, interactive, computer-created scene or ‘world’ within which a user can immerse themselves.

The term soundscape was first coined in 1969 by Michael Southworth in the publication Environment and Behavior for the article entitled “The Sonic Environment of Cities”. For artists and designers, there’s two more important takes on soundscapes to mention. First, soundscapes can be interpreted as an environment that is shaped by the listener’s perception of sounds. This idea is marked evolution from the mere creation of sounds to how we as humans understand them. Second, the Mycity, Mysounds app makes use of soundscapes which refer to a performance of sounds that create the sensation of experiencing a particular acoustic environment, either found sounds of an acoustic environment, or in conjunction with musical performances. Its certainly the most artistic-centered use of the term.

How do soundscapes relate to design and green professionals?

As a person interested in how we as humans interpret, perceive, and design the world around us, this concept is highly relative to professionals who help shape the natural and built environment. The role of architects and landscape architects, for example, is to clearly communicate how something should be built. In the last few years, virtual reality experiences are now a primary tool in helping both the designer and client understand spaces. Sound is an important component and input for this emerging communication and presentation tool in these industries. Trees rustling in the wind; birds chirping near an open window; and the sound of footsteps on a ceramic floor. Here’s an example of this process:

Scenario 1: Soundscapes for virtual reality experiences using 3D digital models.

In this workflow, designers build a 3D digital model using modeling software such as sketchup or Revit. Then, they utilize a plugin designed to allow the user to walk through the model for a virtual reality experience. A common product these days is Enscape , and Lumion is also an alternative. In refining this process, designers can input sound into certain areas, rooms, and confinements of the model to help create a complete immersive environment. This may be the sounds of doors shutting, walking on gravel, moving through a crowded lobby, using calming music to help suggest how one should feel in a space. Adding these layers of refinement that further enhances the sensory experience has crucial weight in helping those experience the site as realistically as possible. Its very common for firms to screen capture a video of a particular sequence, and then package and post process to curate a customized experience for a client. This is when additional sound effects and enhancements may also be made.

Virtual reality: the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

So where do the sounds come from?

As we’re in the golden age of highly capable and accessible smartphones with quality microphones, a number of great tools and communities have emerged to help create crowdsourcing frameworks and large collections in acoustic ecology.  Apps such as AudioMobile, for example, allow users to record audio with file-embedded pictures and GPS coordinates. For sound enthusiasts who seek to explore and contribute to bodies of work, applications like Record the Earth and Sound around You provide useful tools for combining the art of sound mapping with crowdsourcing and social media activities. Architects i know often refer to to grab the sounds they need to enhance various walk through experiences.

What’s next?

It’s only a matter of time until owner-operators of museums, public gardens, and cultural sites leverage this tool to bring in more visitors on a virtual level. Imagine instead of flying to Paris to see The Louvre, i could instead go on their website and do a virtual walkthrough of the complex complete with the same sensory experience as a physical, in-the-flesh visitor. How cool would that be?! The soundscape concept is an important component in making virtual reality come alive, and i hope to see more of it in the future.

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