2/2014

Why does everything beep?

Whether inside or out, we’re surrounded by a chorus of pings and beeps emitted by household appliances, cars, traffic lights and office equipment. Why do modern cars drive us crazy with their incessant beeping?

Multimodal interfaces that use multiple sensory channels to communicate information have become increasingly common in electronic devices in recent years. A broad repertoire of audio signals is one of the latest means by which machines communicate with humans.

As all communication, sounds serve a purpose. They work best in situations where our other senses are otherwise engaged. We cannot take our eyes off the road while at the wheel, and machines are sometimes too far away for users to interpret visual or haptic feedback. Audible alerts can also warn us of impending danger and help visually impaired people navigate the streets safely.

Simple audio signal systems are cheap and take up little space. They can be readily integrated into small, portable devices. Distinctive audio signals are also easy to distinguish from ambient noise.

Audio signals should be used judiciously

Sound design is a challenging field, but the importance of sound as a design parameter is often overlooked or takes a back seat to graphical layout and design. However, the overuse of beeps and warning sounds numbs and even annoys users.

Sounds become a problem if their compatibility with the context of use is not taken into consideration. A microwave may be too noisy to be used in the early hours of the morning when the rest of the family sleeps. Waking up to a soothing melody played by an alarm clock may be a better way to start the day than being startled awake by the traditional high-pitched ringing. The intended contexts of use should be identified and thoroughly analysed in advance to ensure that products fit into the environments in which they will be used.

The power of sound has not gone unnoticed by game designers, who have always understood the importance of audio for creating rich and compelling user experiences. Sound effects heighten the sense of realism and impression of movement, for example, when pigs roll in the ground in Angry Birds.

As sounds are a key component of overall user experience, they will be increasingly incorporated into almost all types of products in the future.

The question was answered by Kaisa Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila, Professor in the Department of Pervasive computing at TUT, whose speciality is human-centered technology that cuts across several disciplines, such as usability, psychology and sociology. Her research elucidates people’s needs, limitations and requirements concerning the use of new technologies.

 
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