Design

Can Acoustic metamaterials rescue your hearing?

Photo credit: Office of Naval Research licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Boston University’s work on acoustic metamaterials is quite interesting, but it’s a long way from being available in stores if you’re concerned about hearing loss, as you should be.

Acoustic metamaterials are an exciting if little-known area of research and development that hold promise for much better, i.e., lighter, less bulky, ways to stop noise from destroying your hearing or disrupting your sleep or concentration.

The article caught my attention because I used to teach at BU, though I don’t know this research team. And I’ve also done some grant-funded work on other acoustic metamaterials in the research lab I co-founded at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. So I am very interested in this subject.

But I mainly want to say this: The most important work on noise control right now is going on at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where leadership recognized two years ago that noise is, indeed, a serious public health hazard. That’s huge—because it brings noise out of the dark shadow it’s been hidden under at Environmental Protection Agency since 1981. The CDC’s recognition is what has triggered interest in research on a variety of solutions., and its interest should trigger funding for:

  1. Widespread work on reducing noise at the source (such as noise from airports, highways, railways, construction and \ maintenance equipment, household appliances, headphones, etc.), and
  2. Reducing noise at the receiver (such as noise-cancellation headphones or more effective, lighter, or less bulky ways to block sound from destroying your hearing).

We’ve already seen two pieces of national bi-partisan legislation pass without a fight: the 2017 bi-partisan Warren-Grassley OTC Hearing Aid Act, and the 2018 FAA Re-Authorization Act. And at the local level, a number of cities and towns have taken up the battle: Washington DC, New York City, Southampton, New York, S. Pasadena, and others.

In fact, it feels like the tide has turned on this issue after a 38-year hiatus and hearing loss is now beginning to be recognized as a serious public health hazard. But don’t wait for this BU group to commercialize their work on acoustic metamaterials because that could be decades away. Go and buy a good pair of ear plugs or a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones AND a good pair of over-the-ear “ear muffs” (they can be found at hunting or hardware stores). Then train your family members, even the youngest children, that hearing is precious and must be protected.

Sound is like the air you breathe: omnipresent, invisible, necessary, but also potentially hazardous. Nobody will protect you if you don’t protect yourself.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Sound regulation of unnecessary noise

Once again another community has come to the conclusion that fireworks noise must be controlled to protect wildlife. This time enforcement has come after a horrific reaction to a New Year’s fireworks display. Namely, Devon council in the UK will enforce a noise limit on fireworks after a New Year’s display startled nearby birds resulting in death for hundreds of them.

As we reported before, quiet fireworks exist. It is simply irresponsible for communities to continue to torment animals because they want loud noise to accompany what is primarily a visual display.  Then again, considering the pollution fireworks cause, can we just move on to something else that isn’t as destructive?

Apple watch to add noise monitoring

Photo credit: Forth With Life licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Dr. Daniel Fink, Chair, The Quiet Coaltion

Apple has announced that it is adding a noise monitoring feature to the Apple watch. The new feature should be available in late 2019. Users will be able to set their own sound warning level (according to this French-language link), but the example used in the linked Mic article cites 90 decibels (dB) as the warning level.

That’s too loud.

The World Health Organization recommends a daily average noise exposure of only 70 decibels to prevent hearing loss. After only 30 minutes at 90 dB, one has reached that daily noise dose even if the other 23 1/2 hours have zero noise, which is impossible.

Most people don’t know that the auditory injury threshold, the threshold at which auditory damage begins, is only 75-78 A-weighted decibels* (dBA) for 8 hours, which mathematically is the same as 70 dB time-weighted average for 24 hours, or 85 dBA for only 1 hour. There is some evidence that auditory damage may begin at sounds as low as 55 dBA for 8 hours. The only evidence-based noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 decibels for 24 hours.

If you have an Apple watch and want to use the noise monitoring feature, we suggest setting the alarm level at 80 or at most 85 decibels.

But you don’t need an Apple watch or a sound level meter app on your smart phone to know if you’re being exposed to too much noise. If you have to strain to speak or be heard in a normal conversation at the usual 3-4 foot social distance, the ambient noise is above 75 dBA and your hearing is at risk.

Protect your ears now, or need hearing aids later.

*A-weighting adjusts sound measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

How to minimize your noise footprint

Photo credit: Cameron Casey from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I hadn’t thought about how much noise I make–I’m pretty sure I don’t make much except occasional hammering and power tool use when doing yard and household maintenance–until I read this article by Paige Towers in The Guardian that introduces the concept of a person’s noise footprint.

We talk about our carbon footprint and what those concerned about climate change can do to try to reduce theirs, but we should think about how much noise we make, too. The amount of carbon dioxide and related substances each person produces from fossil fuel use affects the world, including humans and animals.  So does the amount of noise we each produce.

As Ms. Towers points out, some noise production is inevitable, but if we have a choice to use a quieter alternative, we should make that choice. And her call for noise activism is exactly what I’ve encouraged for years.  If we all do our part, the world will be a quieter, healthier place.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

New hearing aid promises better results

Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Researchers at Columbia University have developed a new hearing aid that claims to tune out distracting voices by reading the wearer’s brain waves. People need a difference between the ambient sound level and the level of speech, called the speech-to-noise or signal-to-noise ratio, both abbreviated SNR,  to be able to understand speech. People with normal hearing need a 3 dB SNR, but those with hearing loss need a 7 dB SNR or even a 15 dB SNR to be able to understand speech.

Older analog hearing aids amplified all sounds, so they didn’t help users understand speech in a noisy environment, because all sounds were amplified. But newer digital hearing aids, with directional and tunable features, claim to have solved this problem.

I haven’t seen studies of this in peer-reviewed journals, only claims from the manufacturers. Hearing aid users have told me the costly digital hearing aids are better, but still nowhere near as good as normal hearing.

If the new hearing aids discussed in the report linked above become available commercially, they are likely to cost even more than the latest digital hearing aids, which can cost up to $8,000 for a pair.

Here’s a thought: Instead of requiring people with hearing loss to drop $8,000 for the privilege of understanding speech in public spaces, why not make restaurants and stores quieter? That would make everyone more comfortable in the space, and would help everyone understand speech.

And the simplest way of making a restaurant or store costs nothing: turn down the volume of the amplified background music!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Acoustic vehicle alerts are a problem

Photo credit: Kaboompics .com from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition’s Jeanine Botta presented a paper on acoustic vehicle alerts, also known as horn-based alerts, on May 13, 2019, at the Acoustical Society of America’s 177th meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

Acoustic vehicle alerts are a problem because they are capable of disrupting sleep and interrupting concentration. In most vehicles, the alerts can be turned off or can be configured to use flashing lights instead of a sound. But not all horn-based alerts are easily reconfigured.

In 2011, the Society of Automotive Engineers recommended that automakers install “an externally audible or visual alert” to warn drivers of an engine that has been left running, as a means of preventing carbon monoxide poisoning. In response, some automakers used horn sounds to comply with the standard. This decision did not consider driver behavior or technical errors, such as drivers starting a car and getting out to brush snow off a windshield, or a passenger with a second key remaining in a car. This paper examined posts in online forums that include those authored by car owners seeking technical advice about turning off this horn-based alert. One frequently cited reason was concern over waking nearby neighbors.

In February 2019, Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced legislation requiring automatic engine shutoff in all vehicles in certain situations. The Protecting Americans from the Risks of Keyless Ignition Technology Act, or PARK IT Act, is supported by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Center for Auto Safety, Safety Research and Strategies, and Consumer Reports.

And in California, where I live, where there are 14.5 million registered motor vehicles, it’s actually illegal for a horn to be used other than to avoid an accident or as a burglar alarm.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

The design of sound notifications

Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

Gabriela Barkho, The Observer, writes about the designers who create the “undeniably annoying” sound notifications used in mobile technology. Barkho notes that most of us shut off the noisy notification that tells us someone is trying to call us, replacing the rington with vibrate, but what of other sound notifications?

Barkho writes that “[t]he new age of mobile sound is as much about representing the app’s brand and mission as it is about the user experience.” Ouch. The thought of fighting your way through a crowded room with everyone holding a bleating cell phone is horrifying. Fortunately, however, designers recognize that sounds can annoy. Says Josh Mobley, a composer and sound designer, “[t]he trick is to make a sound that people will hear that isn’t going to annoy the shit out of them every time it plays.” Hear, hear.

While we are happy to learn that designers are aware of the problems posed by annoying sound notifications, what will happen when every app demands sound notifications that brand stand out? Imagine the horrorscape of competing notifications, with each designer trying to make their audio stand out. How will people cope when they can never have an uninterupted moment?

Maybe they won’t have to.

Why? Because according to Chris Kyriakakis, professor of electrical and computer engineering/systems and director of the Immersive Audio Laboratory at Univeristy of Southern California, the next big thing in sound notifications is spatialized sound. Kyriakakis calls spatialized notifications “a great leap forward” that would allow a user to use direction to decipher communication. How? He imagines that “a ding from front and center of your headphones could signal an urgent text, while a softer one from the back-end could be a less important notification.”

If it’s true that sound spatialization is the future, then maybe this brave new world of sound notifications won’t be as horrific as one might imagine. Among other things, Kyriakakis envisions spatialization with headphone use. Sure, city streets may be even more difficult to navigate as we weave our way around battalions of headphone-wearing people meandering in the streets, focused on distinguishing a ping from a beep  But at least we wont have to hear it.

 

 

How to deal with a snorer

Photo credit: Joshua Hayworth licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Helmut of NoisyWorld tests the “snore blocking performance” of two Bose noise-cancelling headphones and declares the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 a winner.  Says Helmut, “[t]he Bose QC35 noise cancelling headphones (QC35) block[ed] out enough of even loud snoring to allow me fall and stay asleep.”

If you have a partner or roommate who snores, click the link to learn Helmut’s “recipe” for snore-blocking sleep!

The scourge that is electric hand dryers

Photo credit: Travis Wise licensed under CC BY 2.0

Llyod Alter, the design editor at Treehugger, recently asked whether Dyson electric hand dryers were “the world’s worst design object.” In his post, Alter quotes Mark Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas News, who called the Dyson Airblade “the most abhorrent work of design in recent memory.”  What drove Lamster to this conclusion?  Noise was first and foremost. Said Lamster:

For starters, the Dyson Airblade is deafening. Running a Dyson Airblade is the aural equivalent of standing on an airport runway while a 747 throttles up for takeoff. That’s because the machine works not by using heat, but by blowing air at such velocity that it “scrapes” the water off your hands. (This is its supposed advantage over conventional, hot-air hand dryers, which are also awful.)

Alter eventually disagrees with Lamster after doing an analysis that compares the global warming burden of electric hand dryers versus paper towels. Not surprisingly, the hand dryer over its life time produces a smaller burden than using paper towels over the same period. Of course, we think one should also weigh the consequences of having “aerosolized fecal matter” spewed about, but maybe we are just a bit too sensitive.

So, is the Dyson the world’s worst design object? We say no.  Why?  Because that title belongs to the Xlerator, our hand drying nemesis.

Sound strategy

Photo credit: Robin Hall licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I know a good line when I steal one, but I always give credit. This article in EFA magazine has both a great title and good information about designing spaces in which older people can converse more easily.

The principles of universal design state that all facilities should be designed to be used by everyone–young, old, tall, short, fat, skinny, and completely abled or not–and the design of the space should include its soundscape. So why not apply these principles to all interior spaces–and not just spaces dedicated for older peopleand design spaces that allow everyone to speak and be heard?

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.