Mechanical engineers always talk about the importance of background noise. About how, looking back to when something went wrong, they actually, unconsciously knew it was about to happen because the quality of the background noise had changed. It's a well understood phenomenon; we absorb huge amounts of information about the world through background noise. That's why movie soundtracks and sound effects are so important. Something that - with the notable exception of games designers - digital folk seem to miss quite a lot.
I remember seeing a talk once from a guy who did sound for the ER (on TV, not in actual hospitals). He was telling stories with the sound - foreshadowing moments, enhancing themes, adding drama - all via secondary attention. And I've always wanted to try and use sound as a way of telling you what's going on in/on/with the web. We've been mucking about with a few varients of this - from the abstract and arty to the slightly less abstract and arty - and we're going to try them out via some boxes which Adrian's building for us.
They're designed to be dead simple - they have an on/off/volume switch and three channel options. Each of those channels points to a different audio source on the internet. When you turn them on sound comes out of whichever channel you're currently tuned to. They're like internet radios but without all that annoying choice. The first prototype is in this quite big box but later versions might just go inside old radios, or much smaller boxes. I like the idea of them being hidden in the corner of a room, like an ornament rather than an appliance.
We've been thinking of things to put through them. Things with purpose and without.
It Can't Be Called Ghost Box
Our working name for channel one has been Ghost Box, because Warren Ellis was going on about the record label when we started thinking about it. The idea is something that sits in the corner of a room, is silent most of the time but slips out sounds that change the atmosphere every now and then. Or that acts like an aural version of Matt's Presence Machine. Not quite like ambient music, less constant than that, but low-level or occasional sounds that punctuate the room every now and then. This could, obviously, be very annoying, it won't suit everywhere all the time. It might not work anywhere.
I've been experimenting what it might sound/feel like by adding lots of silence and the occasional sound effect, musical fragment and soundscape to this S3FM channel and playing it in the background a lot. I quite like it. It has that effect of being unnoticeable most of the time but waking you up every now and then and making you wonder if you're in a forest. (If you try to listen to it don't worry that it seems broken, it's mostly silence.)
It can't be called Ghost Box though. Too many things are already called that and it's not for contacting the dead. We'll think of another name.
There's a magnificent project called Peep: The Network Auralizer which is designed to let sysadmins "monitor their network with sound". Natural sounds are used to represent system events, so that this represents a bad DNS query and a heavy load of traffic sounds like a very busy pond being stalked by a fox. I'd love to be able to do that with my social network and my networked devices. Probably not with natural sounds though.
I'd like interesting and distinctive pings for nearby checkins, when it's my turn on WWF, when certain folders in my dropbox have updated, when I've been @d or DMd, when the local BorisBike station's full-up or empty, you know the kind of thing. Stuff that I'd like to be vaguely aware of, rather than be actively informed of. And stuff that doesn't require my computer or device to be on, in the room and attention-hogging.
I've been prototyping this by switching all my system alert sounds on and switching all the sounds on in growl. It's not the same but it's starting to work. I'm starting to hear what's going on in my networked world, rather than watch it.
The Third Space
And I'm not quite sure about the third channel yet.
I like what Matt's talking about here; some sort of semi-collaborative, semi-hands off music listening thing.
Or, I'd still like to solve ambient speech.
Maybe it's an aural version of what ambient devices used to do. One-bit displays with sound. Or there's birdsong. Or, I don't know.
We've been thinking about Radio Club for a long time now, maybe it's that. We'll see.