Why Sound Design is the Next Great Digital Frontier.

By: George Webster, Director of Content Strategy at Critical Mass

When you hire designers, what’s more important — that they are Photoshop and Keynote virtuosos, or violin virtuosos? Exactly. We live in a hyper-visual world, where eye-popping flatscreens and touchscreens are constantly transforming the way we interact with technology.

But now, get ready for sound. Want to enrich a trivial moment with surprise and delight? Want to inspire global change on a visceral level? Sound design can help you do it. Though long overlooked, sound has limitless potential for transforming the way people connect with technology — and the world — around them.

So here are seven ways that marketers, designers, entrepreneurs and scientific researchers are teaming up and making some impressive strides on behalf of our ears. How will you design the future of sound?

1. Surprise and Delight

‘Boris Bikes,’ part of London’s bicycle hiring scheme, have been around for close to five years. However, about six months ago the bikes at Waterloo Station started doing something different: they gave a little ring when unlocked. Nothing fancy — just a charming, old-fashioned bicycle bell chime. This bit of sound does two things: it signals that your bike is “all set” and it yields a moment of surprise and delight. It changes the experience of using a Boris Bike in a small but impacting way.

The surprise and delight of sound should be shareable, too. We share text, video and photography effortlessly — why not sounds? This is where apps like Yappie are making an impact. As the ‘Instragram of Sound,’ Yappie is a mobile, social networking app that allows you to record and customise 60 second audio clips (Yapps) and share them. You can filter your voice through “zombie” or “robot” or “grape” (yes, grape), and we can envision a future where apps like this have syndicated celebrity voice filters, which means you could post a “personalized” birthday greeting from “Samuel L. Jackson” to a Facebook friend. You could also have the power to leave the excitement of your voice on review sites like Tripadvisor, complete with indigenous sounds — “we can hear kookaburras from our balcony in the Tablelands! Listen…!”

From bikes to yapps, the question we should be asking ourselves is where can a delightful bit of sound make a surprising, memorable impact?

2. Deepening the Experience

Grave, even shocking sounds can create a profound and enduring bond between the listener and an idea. When UNMAS wanted to further its goal of launching “a coordinated response to the problems of landmines and explosive remnants of war,” they sought out a visceral, interactive experience that would bring people face-to-face with the horrors of living with landmines. The result was “Sweeper,” an ibeacon enabled iphone app that created a deep, one-to-one experience with sound at its core.

Other, less consequential experiences can be deepened by the integration of sound as well, like music reviews. The Washington Post has proven adept at combining reviews of concerts and albums with audio clips that both support the critique and let the reader make her own judgments. It gives reviewers a fuller voice and audiences a deeper grasp, but it also begs the question — where could we design entirely new audio experiences to integrate with text, or even visual content?

3. Accessibility

Solving customer problems. It’s what we do as marketers and innovators, but lack of accessibility can be more than an inconvenience. At the cash machine, it can be a basic safety issue.

“A fifth of blind and partially sighted people have asked a stranger for help with their PIN at a cash machine.” (RNIB’s Make Money Talk Report)

Banks have begun to respond this problem, like Barclays, who have equipped over 80% of its machines with audio technology. It’s an admittedly low-tech solution, but it’s an enormously revealing one. Consider that on a touchscreen’s hyper-visual surface, brand designers would never settle for anything less than dazzling, cutting-edge brilliance that beautifies, simplifies or simply improves a customer interaction. In contrast, audio design is so overlooked that, right now, safely getting cash from a cash machine is a choice point for the visually impaired. This should be a basic customer expectation, not a point of difference. It’s also a sobering reminder that we all have a long way to go in raising the profile of sound design.

4. Quality of Life — or Entertainment…

Sound can heighten an experience, but it can also compensate for other sensory experiences. For example, as we age we can lose the ability to sense certain food textures (like crunching), which can result in loss of interest in eating and health complications in the elderly. So researchers in Japan developed a headset that triggers different sounds as wearers close their jaws when chewing. With a technology like this, you can design sounds that supply an auditory experience where a gustatory one is lost. And it’s novel and fun as well.

Of course, combining sound and sensation in this manner could be enormously entertaining, too. Those same Japanese researchers got a head start by programming the headset to scream every time a wearer bit down on a piece of Jelly Baby candy. Clearly, this technology could go in a lot of directions (some of which will not be for the faint of heart).

5. Cutting Through

Hardcore car fans love a good auto show. The problem with auto shows, however, is that they’re crowded and often the best you can hope for is a 90 second promo played on a flatscreen that you could have seen from home. How can you cut through? One answer is with a little bit of interactive sound, like Nissan’s “Pedal to the Metal,” which brings a moment, and a car, to life.

It’s a playful, interactive and memorable way to deepen the experience of checking out a car — and in a way you didn’t expect. And it begs the question, how many different situations do we encounter, from conventions to showrooms to retails spaces, where a little bit of sound create an experience that cuts through?

6. Personal(ised) Training

What will the future of working-out sound like? Adidas and Spotify are teaming up and giving us a glimpse with the Adidas Go app, which, using your iPhone’s accelerometer, “measures stride rate and matches songs from Spotify’s library — based on your listening habits — to help you keep pace” (Billy Steel, engadget, 29 April, 2015). Spotify is also experimenting with original compositions whose tempo will increase or decrease with your paces. Soon, the beats and bars of your workout soundtrack will fit as snugly as your new trainers.

And there’s no reason why, in the near future, ibeacons and geolocation technologies couldn’t be synced to your past workout data, which would augment your personal fitness ecosystem like never before. Imagine falling behind last week’s pace and hearing your voice (or your favourite celebrity’s) shout, “step on it! You can go faster than this!” Now that headphones are standard fitness equipment, the future of sound design and exercise is ripe for innovative ideas.

7. Changing Perceptions (or the “Toffee Experiment”)

The Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University studies the way “sensory processing within a single sense is modulated by information in, and attention towards, the other senses.” In other words, listening to different sounds can alter your perception of taste, which suggests that sounds, in a way, have a taste all their own.

In one experiment, participants in the CRL ate toffee while the research team played a “bitter” soundtrack of lower-pitched trombones and then a “sweet” one of higher-pitched piano music. The experiment confirmed that people rated the toffee as sweet or bitter based on the sounds they heard.

We recently had a chance to try out an updated version of the experiment (with wine), guided by a graduate researcher from the laboratory. We found that certain varietals of wine tasted more or less acidic based on accompanying musical selections. This prompts us to ask, what’s next? Playlists paired with wine? Soundtracks paired with coffee? (I’ll take a tall hazelnut with soymilk and Bob Dylan, please…)

So what does the future hold?

That is the question. One way to answer it is to try and predict where many different kinds of sound design will likely converge. We think cars.

In a car, your hands are on the wheel (for now). Additionally, you’re isolated and you want to be connected, informed or entertained. Between wireless connectivity, geolocation enabled apps, voice interactive software, increasingly functional mobile technology (from phones to wearables) and the continued rise of podcasts and music services like Spotify, there will be mindboggling possibilities for anyone ready to think about the intersection of cars and sound design.

And rest assured that smart brands, smart agencies and smart innovators will be searching for new ways to connect people to products and ideas through sounds — from the ones that inspire deeply meaningful connections to the little effects that simply surprise and delight us.