Acoustics and the Internet of Things

Dec. 20, 2018

Hanson Hsu offers a primer on basic acoustics theory and the latest technologies for building sciences, focusing on Internet of Things applications.

Internet of Things Definition and Everyday Examples

Despite all the buzz, it’s challenging to find a relatable definition for the Internet of Things (IoT). One of the more understandable definitions is from Wikipedia: “The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of devices, vehicles and home appliances that contains electronics, software, actuators and connectivity which allows these things to connect, interact and exchange data.”

Aside from its formal definition, the everyday understanding of IoT is how everything can be controlled using the internet. In simple terms, IoT is how anything can have an electronic device attached to it in order to send and receive information, or to do things for you. For example, think of the light inside the fridge that comes on when the door is open. Door open, light on. Door closed, light off. Now, connect the light to a global system of communication, which shares the information with the world, or just anyone who has access to the data. Make it so fast it’s nearly instantaneous, automate it completely and throw in a motor to open and close the door. This is how most people think of IoT.

In the recording industry, this is nothing unusual. For decades we built systems to synchronize tape machines, automate moving faders and mixers, recall settings on outboard gear and instantly identify the location of digital files.

The difference between IoT and the recording industry is that instead of being limited to the boundaries of a studio, IoT reaches anywhere the internet does, is considerably more user friendly and is less expensive to the end user. With a dedicated IP address, a communicator, the internet and a data device, information can be shared 24/7 autonomously.

Internet of Things | Acoustics of Tomorrowland

Imagine a world where you are flying to New York and the entire journey feels like a walk in the country. You leave your serenely peaceful house that senses your departure and locks itself as you leave. Then you step into your pleasantly quiet, automated car that drops you off at the busy, yet calm and quiet, airport terminal, which sounds more like Monet’s gardens than a parking lot for jet engines. Entering the plane feels like walking into a library and inside it sounds like a warm, comfortable living room.

Imagine a world where your office sounds like you’ve walked into a private movie theater. Screens are sharp and easy to see, peoples’ voices are distinct and clear, yet it’s obvious there’s an infrastructure of technology hidden beneath the quiet, soothing interior décor. At the press of a button you have email, spreadsheets, pro-tools, final cut and VOIP phones with perfect intelligibility. Each sound coming out of the tiny computer’s speakers sounds so crisp and clear that you find yourself mentally correcting other peoples’ diction and use of grammar.

Imagine a world where you say “sleep” and all sound disappears as your bedroom gently fades to silent. The windows gently slide shut to block out exterior noise as the door quietly closes to keep out noise from other parts of the house. Artwork and televisions rotate, exposing hidden quantum acoustic devices on the flip side, creating a sound of spaciousness, like camping in the desert or being on a deserted island. Every buzz, hum and whirr vanishes and a quiet, calm environment designed for deep sleep is created. Even before you brush your teeth, the bedroom has transformed itself into an acoustical sensory deprivation chamber, personalized to your unique sleep patterns.

This is the world of IoT acoustics. This is the world we all want to live in. This is the future.

IoT and Acoustics Today

Back in the real world, IoT at its base postulate is sharing data. Is the fridge door open or closed? Is the kitchen light on or off? What temperature is the air conditioning or heat set to? In many cases the data is binary, but with many things, it’s far more complex data, such as shopping history or GPS tracking.

Music players, thermostats, doorbells: The pipe dream of IoT is a fully automated world where everything we desire happens without us having to lift a finger. Take out the trash, make dinner, find me a hotel, drive me to work, translate French to English and, when you’re done, fly me to the moon.

Unfortunately, acoustics is a little trickier than watches, doorbells and music players. It’s easy to control the sound out of a speaker via IoT because a speaker is a small lightweight electronic device with a long history of automated control. Also, people are willing to sacrifice audio quality for convenience. But how do we control the sound once it leaves the speaker, once the sound is in the room and beyond control of the internet of things device? Many say software can evaluate a room and compensate for it by adjusting the sound coming out of the speaker to fix the sound of the room. If only wishing made it so.

Software doesn’t change the surface of the wall, the sound signature of your floor or the way your windows perfectly reflect acoustical energy. All software can do is change the sound signal feeding the speaker to pre-adjust the signal before it leaves the speaker. Unfortunately, if this pre-adjustment isn’t perfectly matched to the room, it will sound very strange. Plus, software doesn’t affect organic sounds that aren’t generated by a speaker or created via electronics. This includes most of our world: live music, conversation, weather, traffic, waves on the beach and all organic, ambient sound.

Like all things IoT, we need a device on the other end of the phone line to take the command from the brain coming down the nervous system to affect the physical world.

Acoustics is challenging, because to be effective, it needs to control energy riding on airwaves, which means everywhere there’s air, there’s sound. Not just an electrical signal to a speaker or computer, constrained by a piece of copper wire, but an entire planet of air, the entire earth’s atmosphere. It’s Horton Hears a Who! multiplied by trillions. The scale is global. To put it another way, sound exists everywhere air exists, everywhere you can breathe, everywhere between the surface of the planet and outer space.

Acoustics is the science of sound. It is the way sound energy acts in a physical environment such as air, water and solids. It is how sound reacts to the real, physical world, not a virtual one. In this age of electronics, acoustics is widely misinterpreted as the science of speakers and electronics. While it does encompass these devices, it’s far wider reaching. Before the invention of electricity and loudspeakers there was sound everywhere and naturally there still is.

The Achilles heel of the electronics world is to think that it can fix everything in acoustics with software. Acoustics is affected by every material or object in a room: every wall, floor, ceiling, door, window, couch and curtain, not just the electronic signal and the speaker it drives. This is why using only software or room tuning electronics never fully solves your acoustic issues or brings us closer to true IoT for acoustics. How does room tuning software help in a terrible sounding conference room with no speakers or electronics, just people talking?

Acoustics Technology and Challenges for Internet of Things Control

The challenge for IoT acoustics is how to evolve from data collection to data commands and controlling the tools that affect the sound of our physical reality. For ones and zeros to have acoustical control, they must have control of something that controls sound energy riding on air molecules, not just speakers. In other words, how do we build a system where data commands can control acoustical devices to dynamically shape the sound of our environment?

Your brain controls everything in your body via your neurological system. Metaphorically, the internet is your neurological system. To achieve IoT for acoustics we need four things:

  1. A brain to give the commands (computer)
  2. A nervous system to transmit the commands (internet)
  3. A body (motors, actuators, robots) to adjust the devices’ positioning
  4. The devices (quantum acoustics) to dynamically control sound energy

Bleeding edge innovations in acoustical and motor technologies have made IoT of acoustics a reality. Press a button on your phone and 1,000 quantum devices change position thanks to 1,000 micromotors as you hear the sound of your room change from dynamic and full for music, to clear and intelligible for dinner conversation, or perfectly clear for both at the same time. Fully programmable and automatable, an IoT acoustical system can create any imaginable acoustical environment and some beyond imagination. Being comprised of acoustical software and hardware, it employs the latest technologies of both, resulting in the best of all worlds.

Ignoring for now the serious challenges of privacy and security, without the latest in motor technology and ultra-lightweight quantum acoustic devices, the IoT of acoustics would not be possible.

Why don’t we see IoT acoustical systems in the consumer marketplace? Simple, they’re  laborious and expensive to build. It’s far less expensive to write some software on a laptop than to cut, saw and shape wood, metal and plastics to build a mechanical system to physically move many acoustical devices around a room on a motorized system. A software model takes less than a micron on a hard drive while a physical model for room acoustics takes up an entire room or building. Until a greater demand in the market exists, IoT acoustical systems will remain custom systems designed and built specifically for each project.

The Silver Bullets

The silver bullet of IoT is that electrons are small and easy to control and have over 100 years of development in science, industry and society. Until recently, the missing silver bullet has been ultra-light quantum devices that can control sound energy at any frequency, and inexpensive, miniature motor systems to control the position and placement of the acoustic devices.

In architecture, some brilliant designers have created motorized and kinetic facades that adapt to light and weather using automated sensors to control the movement of exterior panels. It acts like a chameleon’s skin, yet better: it changes the topology of the building’s skin to match the weather or light of the moment, not just the color. These architectural skins are highly functional and effective, aesthetically pleasing and energy efficient. However, they are expensive and laborious to build, taking far longer to construct than a traditional architectural façade. IoT  for acoustics uses similar motor control technology to control quantum acoustic devices on the interiors of structures instead of the exterior.

Music players, thermostats and doorbells existed for generations before they were easily and inexpensively controlled by IoT. Advances in telecommunications, the miniaturization of electronics and new battery technologies made IoT of these smart home devices possible. Likewise, the miniaturization of quantum acoustic devices and motor technology makes IoT for acoustics possible and one day affordable.

Warping into the Future While Learning from the Past

The internet is a wondrous, terrifying and amazing thing. Yet, like any tool in the history of mankind, it can be used for both wondrous and terrifying acts. By learning from history, we can avoid the pitfalls of the past, and conscientiously move forward into a future that sounds beautiful and looks beautiful. Now in any architectural space we can experience lifelike, spherical imaging, like being in the great outdoors, yet fully controlled by the internet and its many software mechanisms.

IoT is growing fast and every day people are realizing how it can affect the sound of our world in a positive, fun and healthy way. By blending innovations in technology with a moral awareness of how to use these technologies responsibly, anything is possible, and the future looks excitingly bright.

Acoustics is incredibly fun. As the science underlying all of sound, it brings us music, language and a wide world of intriguing sounds. It can teach us to care for our health and improve our quality of life in a variety of artistic and fascinating ways.

♦ Design NewsRead the full Acoustics 101 series ♦

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