Noise Cancellation – An Example of Mediated Audio Reality?

Whilst it is tempting to focus on the realtime processing of visual imagery when considering augmented reality, notwithstanding the tricky problem of inserting a transparent display between the viewer and the physical scene when using magic lens approaches, it may be that the real benefits of augmented reality will arise from the augmentation or realtime manipulation of another modality such as sound.

EXERCISE: describe two or three examples of how audio may be used, or transformed, to alter a user’s perception or understanding of their current environment.

ANSWER: car navigation systems augment spatial location with audio messages describing when to turn and audio guides in heritage settings, where you can listen to a story that “augments” a particular location. Noise cancelling earphones transform the environment by subtracting, or tuning out, background noise and modern digital hearing aids process the audio environment at a personal level in increasingly rich ways.

Noise Cancellation

As briefly described in Blurred Edges – Dual Reality, mediated reality is a general term in which information may be added to or subtracted from a real world scene. In many industrial and everyday settings, intrusive environmental noise may lead to an unpleasant work environment, or act as an obstacle to audio communication. In such situations, it might be convenient to remove the background noise and expose the subjects within it to a mediated audio reality.

Noise cancellation provides one such form of mediated reality, where the audio environment is actively “cleaned” of an otherwise intrusive noise component. Noise cancellation technology can be use to cancel out intrusive noise in noisy environments, such as cars or aircraft. By removing noisy components from the real world audio, noise cancellation may be thought of as producing a form of diminished reality, in the sense that environmental components have ben lost, rather than added to, even though the overall salient signal to noise ration may have increased.

Noise cancelled environments might also be considered as a form of hyper-reality, in the sense that no information other than that contained within, or derived from, the original signal is presented as part of the “augmented” experience.

EXERCISE: watch the following videos that demonstrate the effect of noise cancelling headphones and that describe how they work, then answer the following questions:

  • how does “active” noise cancellation differ from passive noise cancellation?
  • what sorts of noise are active noise cancellation systems most effective at removing, and why?
  • what sort of system can be used to test or demonstrate the effectiveness of noise cancelling headphones?

Finally, write down an algorithm that describes, in simple terms, the steps involved in a simple noise cancelling system.

EXERCISE: Increasingly, top end cars may include some sort of noise cancellation system to reduce the effects of road noise. How might noise cancellation be used, or modified, to cancel noise in an enclosed environment where headphones are not typically worn, such as when sat inside a car?

Rather than presenting the mixed audio signal to a listener via headphones, under some circumstances speakers may be used to cancel the noise as experienced within a more open environment.

As well as improving the experience of someone listening to music in a noisy environment, noise cancellation techniques can also be useful as part of a hearing aid for hard of hearing users. One of the major aims of hearing aid manufacturers is to improve the audibility of speech – can noise cancellation help here?

EXERCISE: read the articles – and watch/listen to the associated videos – Noise Reduction Systems and Reverb Reduction produced by hearing aid manufacturer Sonic. What sorts of audio reality mediation are described?

It may seem strange to you to think of hearing aids as augmented, or more generally, mediated, reality devices, but their realtime processing and representation of the user’s current environment suggests this is exactly what they are!

In the next post on this theme, we will explore what sorts of physical device or apparatus can be used to mediate audio realities. But for now, let’s go back to the visual domain…

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