Out of the box

Sophea Lerner reflects on sound and computing after ICAD ’97

Auditory display? Puzzled faces and a momentary whirring of cogs are not uncommon responses to hearing this phrase for the first time. What it quite broadly refers to is the use of audio in computer systems. But perhaps the spontaneous sense of contradiction thus conjured goes to the heart of what is most interesting in this area: How do you bring together computers, scientists and sound? And why?

As an event the International Conference on Auditory Display, ICAD ‘97, was highly interdisciplinary, bringing together participants from academia, industry and the arts, sporting a plethora of technical knowledges and creative applications—people with backgrounds in everything from computer music to rocket science, all of whom use sound in some way to communicate information at the interface.

This conjunction of audio and computing is interesting because it requires a bringing together of the discrete symbolic operations of computers with the indiscrete resonant operations of sound. Sounds mix in space and overlap in time. The current interest in audio amongst computing professionals and scientists is connected to major changes in how we conceptualise computer capabilities…No longer the box on the desk! Computing is breaking out as an emerging rash of ubiquitous and diverse and much more specialised gadgets and applications. As computing takes place less and less in the other worlds that we picture through our monitor screens, and more and more in our physical environments, sound has an important role in integrating computer functions into physical space.

The relationship between computing and the visual interface however has a particular history which complicates the adoption of audio as an interface paradigm. The development of the visual display to replace punched cards and text printers as the dominant interface for input to and output from computers came from a scientific culture which sought to represent and manipulate discrete symbolic operations of computers directly through the screen which acted as a window on a world which was quantifiably known. The computer screen carries the baggage of ways of looking and thinking and knowing that are as old as writing.

ICAD as a whole attempted to reconcile the contradictions inherent in the relationships between computing science and sound design by creating a framework for addressing the cultural problems of bringing together such a range of disciplines. So too the work demonstrated and discussed on the whole attempted to bring these paradigmatically divergent modes together.

Sessions included a huge range of approaches. Some used the properties of sounds and their capacity for providing background awareness or spatial information as enhancements to existing data zones, such as a presentation by Beth Mynatt and Maribeth Back on work they are doing on Audio Aura: a lightweight audio augmented reality which used thoughtfully designed sounds to enhance awareness of workplace activity and interaction. At the other end of the scale were presenters bent on attributing absolute empirically proven meanings to certain kinds of sound events; these tended to make very blunt assumptions about the representational meanings of sounds such as failures to distinguish in a meaningful way between, for example, the sound of a real musical instrument and a badly synthesised midi equivalent. In reproducing sounds, the apparatus of recording reproduction and the space in which the sound occurred, as well as the space in which the sound is replayed, all affect the quality and meaning of the sound.

To balance the sometimes simplistic approaches to the material meanings of sounds, a number of special sessions were organised to introduce a diversity of sound art and design issues to the predominantly technical scientific community. An after-dinner panel comprising Paul deMarinis, Ed Osborn, Tim Perkis and Bill Viola presented a range of perspectives on sounds, silence and listening. Paul deMarinis discussed a history of the sounds which have signified silence from the soft introductory passages of eighteenth century orchestral music to the line noise of telephone systems, sounds which indicate an immanent listening space. Tim Perkis gave an interesting talk on different levels of listening attention, proposing a particular mode of not listening, or not listening with conscious attention as an important and valuable listening mode for sound workers to consider. Osborn and Viola discussed their work. On the last night, delegates were treated to Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening experience in which the audience performed for the first 40 minutes—a strategy which created conditions for a particular kind of open listening for Oliveros’ following accordion performance. By contrast, in the closing session of the conference, sound designer Mark Mancini demonstrated sound design techniques from Speilberg blockbusters and Ben Burtt’s classic work on Star Wars.

It seems inevitable that the convergence of sound and computing will change cultural perceptions of both computing and sound. Perhaps the increased use of audio in computing and the dispersal of computing from the box on the desk will bring different ways of listening and knowing into play in the day to day use of computers.

The sheer diversity of ICAD and the seriousness with which it addresses the complexities of such an interdisciplinary event make it an important contribution to these shifts in the culture of computing.

ICAD ’97, Xerox PARC, Palo Alto November 2-5 1997. ICAD ’98 November 2-4, hosted by the University of Glasgow’s Department of Computing Science; queries icad98_info@santafe.edu. ICAD website http://www.santafe.edu/~icad

RealTime issue #23 Feb-March 1998 pg. 39

© Sophea Lerner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1998