Ascribe a Different Meaning to Apple iPhone Sound-effects

Rachel Headrick
Sep 7, 2016 · 4 min read

As I begin to consider the implications of discovering alternative futures in present realities, I find myself thinking about the side effects that result from imagined futures. Obviously these side effects are difficult to anticipate as the future is also unknown, but therein lies the opportunity. If designers could grow comfortable working within the ambiguities of imagined scenarios, might some negative side effects of present choices be avoided?

This question lead me to a deeper investigation of my first “glimpse of the future” example found here. This example is interesting because it relates to society-ascribed-meanings. Apple phones are used world-wide and as a result, people of different languages can all relate to the familiar ringtones, alarm jingles, and message alters. A song remix that I found on youtube -using only iphone sounds - sparked an idea: could these recognizable noises be reinterpreted with different meanings.

So this is the question I asked myself: How do I ascribe different meanings to already-familiar-sounds, and why?

First of all, I considered how sounds are currently used and understood in our environments. This is what I came up with: foot traffic, entertainment (music), doorbells, elevators, bus-card-swipes, airport announcements, sport competitions, school passing periods, church bells, radio-ad jingles, etc.

Then, I considered how sounds could be used in an imagined future environment: relating socially, signifying business transactions (stock trade?), telling stories (or news), indicating direction or order, identifying unseen places (AR), communicating preference, touring/discovering new places, telling time, OR what if these sounds could become a language for inanimate objects?

The final idea (from above) is most interesting in my opinion because to some extent these kinds of sounds are already heard as a language by which an iphone (non-human) communicates to its owner (human). So what if we extend this idea to non-iphones? For example, could my fridge speak to me too? What about my bed or dresser, car or the lock on my front door? What would they say and how would their voices affect or transform my life? Of course there are thousands of questions we must answer in order to build this into a real-world, future scenario, so lets tackle a few here.

What are the side-effects (positive or negative) that come from a language for inanimate objects?

If objects were able to speak, they could tell owners when to replace a valve, or change a pipe, they could worn against over-use or potential damage. In this way objects may last longer in homes and promote durability as opposed to a throw-away-and-replace culture. At the same time, owners may find themselves more emotionally attached to objects that they’ve invested time and energy maintaining. Not only would owners grow more aware and informed about their possessions, but they may even find new and innovative ways to use their household items.

What kind of objects can speak?

This “audible code” of sorts is not limited to household items. What if airport-security conveyer belts, a skateboard, or Costco, warehouse shelving-units could speak to us about their needs? I acknowledge, however, that the limited alerts found on an iphone will by no means serve the needs of all inanimate objects.

What would the role of a designer be on the team that ships these kinds of speaking objects?

The MOMA in New York City gives insight on this question,

“…objects like cell phones and computers exist to provide us with access to complex systems and networks, behaving as gateways and interpreters. Whether openly and actively, or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us, and designers help us develop and improvise the dialogue.”

I love that they use “improvise” as a word describing the way a designer builds and manipulates dialogue. Improvisation will be essential to the designers’ process as they translate iphone alerts into a code that other inanimate objects can use. Additionally, designers will need to consider potential social inconsistencies between these speaking objects and human owners. The audible code could prove disturbing, annoying, and unnecessary. As a result designers will need to understand different kinds of owners (or users) and their needs.