How Can We Feel Comfortable In Workspaces Again?
Bringing the sounds of nature indoors can help us feel happier and more at ease.
AS SOME OFFICES BEGAN TO REOPEN EARLIER IN THE YEAR, all of the focus was on physical safety: cleaning, distancing, and ventilation. But as we grapple with “the new normal”, it’s clear that Covid-19 is also taking a huge toll on our mental health.
Now, scientifically-designed sound is being used as an antidote to our anxiety of indoor spaces. K-array have recently explored some of the game changers in this field starting with a project at the London offices of tech company Vaimo.
Moodsonic is a new technology that brings intelligent nature sound into workspaces, hospitality, healthcare, and beyond. At its core are the principles of biophilia: our innate love of the natural world and the positive impact it has on our health.
Biophilia explains why, for example, humans have such positive responses to natural light (and why light deprivation causes us such harm). Think about the last place you truly felt relaxed and refreshed and you’ll realise it was probably outdoors somewhere. The benefits extend to sound: research shows time and time again that listening to the sounds of nature can improve our physical and mental health.
2BHeard, K-array’s UK distributor teamed up with Moodsonic to deliver a unique soundscape. As you walk through the welcome corridor at Vaimo’s building, you are greeted by a gentle wash of birdsong. The sound is barely perceptible but somehow you should already feel slightly different. Evan Benway, Managing Director of Moodsonic explains “Would you believe, we spend around 90% of our lives indoors. These buildings have a huge impact on our quality of life and it's so important – particularly now – that they’re designed for wellbeing.”
As you walk, the sound changes: it should be fuller and more varied. This particular audio environment – or soundscape – is based on a journey through a remote, nature-filled Australian island. It certainly doesn’t sound like your typical office. You can barely see where the sounds are coming from. The K-array speakers are mounted high into the ceiling, barely visible, and integrated into metal trusses among the columns including sixteen Lyzard-KZ14, four Truffle-KTR25 and four Kommander-KA02.
Most buildings are plagued by noise. This noise distracts and frustrates us and has severe health repercussions. There’s one noise that torments office workers the most: other people’s conversations. “Our sense of hearing has primordial roots,” explains Benway. “It evolved to pick up on dynamic sounds around us, alert us to threats, and to aid communication.” This means that we are not good at ignoring speech. “We’re hardwired to pay attention to it,” says Benway, “which makes it one of the most common complaints about office buildings, hospitals, hotels – nearly all of our buildings.”
Other people’s conversations actually become more of a problem in quieter Covid-era offices. Without a steady background hubbub, they’re extra distracting. “There was a real sense of unease when people began using the space again,” describes Vaimo’s Stephen Hill, who manages the office. “It lacked warmth and I could hear conversations word-for-word from the other side of the room. It was really uncomfortable.”
Benway explains that this led Moodsonic to create a category of soundscapes specifically to promote focus. These soundscapes were engineered to make nearby speech less intelligible, and therefore less distracting.
“We pay special attention to the sonic frequencies in which our consonant sounds are articulated,” says Benway. “If I speak to you but leave out most of the vowel sounds – similar to what happens when we whisper – you can still understand everything I say. By introducing naturally occurring sounds with the right amount of energy in these critical frequency bands, we can disrupt those consonant sounds, turning the speech into an incomprehensible babble, easy enough to ignore.”
This is where STI testing comes in – STI in this case referring to the Speech Transmission Index. A technology commonly used to measure the clarity of PA systems or concert halls, researchers have in recent years turned the methodology on its head. “In a concert hall, you want to hear a pin dropped on stage from the back row,” explains Antonio Nardi, an engineer from Moodsonic. “Here, our target is the opposite. We want to decrease the intelligibility of speech – make it less disruptive.”
Moodsonic’s technology uses an algorithmic approach to making sound, made famous by Brian Eno. It creates a fresh stream of sound that can react to your live environment. “If you were working a late shift and there was no-one else here, the system could introduce sounds to help you feel safer,” Benway explains. “Or, if someone suddenly started speaking loudly, a layer of sound designed to mask their speech would increase in affected areas, while dropping in the vicinity of the talker, subconsciously encouraging them to lower their voice.” Moodsonic can react to any kind of data – like occupancy, temperature, time of day, or weather.
“People really appreciate it,” Vaimo’s Stephen Hill reports. “We’re putting all our efforts into staff wellbeing and sound has been such a huge part of that. Moodsonic combined with K-array has made our office feel like anything but an office. Now it’s a place we enjoy spending time in.”
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