If you wear a hearing aid, are you a cyborg? How about if you wear hearing augmentation gear, even though your hearing is otherwise fine?
The UK design group human beans has come up with three prototype hearing augmentation devices (Flash interface) intended not simply for the hearing impaired, but also for the hearing able. Mute can sample and silence selected noises, from screaming infants to road work to “twittering colleagues.” The .scp format allows an in-ear player to play music or other “soundscapes” altered to match the pattern of other noises around you. But best of all is the Goldfish:
Ever missed something you wanted to hear? – a name, an announcement at the station, a vital fact in a meeting?
Pop a goldfish in your ear and with one discreet tap you can reply what has just been said. In-ear short term memory.
The Goldfish ear plug keeps a constant 10 second buffer, allowing for immediate playback of what has been recorded. If this concept sounds familiar, it should — the notion of a “tivo for one’s life” is a big part of the Participatory Panopticon. In addition, these devices demonstrate the “curb cut” effect, where augmentations initially meant for the disabled come to provide benefits for the able-bodied, as well.
They’re also spectacularly good examples of industrial design — and there’s a reason for that.
These three designs are part of the Hearware exhibit at the V&A Museum in London. Hearware was organized by the UK’s Royal National Institute for the Deaf and the design magazine Blueprint. In a bit of anticipatory curation, they asked 20 British designers to redesign hearing enhancement and assistance technologies. The results are now on display, with the exhibit running through March of 2006. The designs range from the fanciful to the ohmanIwantthatnow, and many are aimed not just at the hearing-impaired, but at the hearing-able.
Although most of the designs exist solely as computer files and props, some — including the Goldfish — have actually been built as prototypes. The goal of Hearware was not to imagine what might happen a decade down the road, but to imagine what the world would look like if we started to think of hearing as a sense to be augmented in the way we augment vision with sunglasses, binoculars, colored contact lenses and the like.
The London Times quotes RNID’s Neil Thomas:
“Years ago glasses were regarded as something you got on NHS prescription and there was very little choice. They were not cool or sexy. Now, glasses have become a fashion item and a style statement and many people wear them even if they have perfect vision.
“In contrast, the design of hearing aids has changed little over the years and they still have very negative connotations with disability.
“We are trying to show the massive potential for industry to create stylish and desirable hearing products which, if they were available on the high street, millions of people would want to use,” Mr Thomas said.
Blueprint published a detailed exploration of what the reconceptualization of hearing augmentation might mean (PDF); human beans is hosting the article on their site. They are also providing a copy of the Hearware illustration (PDF) for the article, with examples of the various augmentation devices from the contributors.