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Talk Freely Behind the Fortress of Babble


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the struggle of a Chinese doctor on the American frontier.

First this, at last something from technology that might actually improve our lives, that may allow you to gossip and talk all you want at your cubicle without being overheard. It's a new tech gadget, kind of like the Cone of Silence. It's called Babble. Our tech contributor Xeni Jardin hears all, sees all, visited the inventors and tested the device on herself.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

And as you hear the sound of my voice you can understand everything I'm saying, but now we're going to turn the application on and you're going to hear how my voice changes. And here I am talking to you...

(Soundbite of Jardin's words changing into babble)

JARDIN: Babble scrambles my speech back into a meaningless, murmuring stream. To find out how it works, I visited the lab in Burbank where a research firms, Applied Minds, designed the device with office furniture company Herman Miller. The lab sits inside a converted warehouse, and Applied Mind's co-founder Danny Hillis escorts be down a long hallway that leads to an old-fashioned phone booth.

(Soundbite of a phone ringing)

Mr. DANNY HILLIS (Co-founder, Applied Minds): The blue moon jumps over the purple sky.

JARDIN: It's as if the Batcave just opened up to welcome us. All of a sudden, the phone booth becomes a door swinging open to reveal a vast room filed with engineers, gadgets, computers and big ideas.

Mr. HILLIS: This is really where the secret laboratories are.

JARDIN: To our left, two employees are hunched behind a computer monitor. We can see that they're talking, but something sounds very different here. Hillis and I are standing about two feet away on the other side of their desk, on top of which sits a small, gray device. It looks like a miniature space heater. This is Babble.

(Soundbite of Babble speech)

Mr. HILLIS: It's almost spooky that you can't understand them. It's almost like magic.

JARDIN: Then Hillis and I take a few steps forward and now we're inside the invisible wall of Babble-encrypted sound. When we huddle up close behind the desk, their conversation sounds normal to us again.

Unidentified Man: Well, this is about just under 500 lumens where I'm running it now.

JARDIN: Uh-huh.

But if we take a few steps farther back again...

(Soundbite of Babble speech)

JARDIN: Babble works by electronically listening to conversation then repeating what it hears at random. Hillis explains that it's the audio version of standing behind a bush if you're trying to hide in the woods.

Mr. HILLIS: And it's sort of doing the acoustic equivalent of that. It's finding the acoustic leaves that are in the conversation and turning those off and using those as camouflage for the real meaning.

(Soundbite of Babble speech)

JARDIN: Hillis explains that our natural human need to extract meaning from speech is what makes nearby conversations so distracting in an open environment, not the sound itself. He says that's why Babble was designed to blur noise rather than to extinguish it.

Mr. HILLIS: It's not so much noise that's distracting, because people are in situations of high noise environments all the time, but it is meaning that's distracting. So if you go walk into a crowded restaurant, there may be quite a din, but it can be quite pleasant. On the other hand, if somebody's talking very quietly right next to you but they're talking about some intimate story that you don't really don't really want to hear, that can be quite unpleasant.

JARDIN: Hillis shows me another prototype of Babble that plugs into a desktop phone. An immobile edition of the device is also planned, which might solve the universal problem of being stuck in a public place when you need to have a private cell phone conversation. Hillis sees one potential use for the technology in hospitals, where sensitive information is often exchange in the open.

Mr. HILLIS: I would be much more comfortable if the person that was interviewing me had one of these devices so everybody in the waiting room wasn't hearing every answer I was giving.

JARDIN: Babble is one of many projects which will be handled by a new subsidiary of Herman Miller called Sonare Technologies, which was formed to create and market products that treat sound as an element of design. Sonare's president, Bill DeKruif, says he wants to combat the traditional design approach to sound.

Mr. BILL DeKRUIF (President, Sonare Technologies): A lot of energy around absorbing sound, a lot of energy around blocking sound and treating sound as though it were an illness.

JARDIN: But sound isn't an illness, argues DeKruif. It's a normal part of our life. We like hearing human voices and natural sound is a good thing. It can make offices more pleasant to work in. And that's why Babble was designed to rehash speech into, well, babble.

(Soundbite of Babble speech)

JARDIN: Herman Miller will begin selling Babble in July. For NPR News in, Los Angeles, I'm Xeni Jardin.

(Soundbite of Babble speech)

CHADWICK: OK, listen up. You can actually see a picture of the mysterious Babble device and get more information at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More coming on DAY TO DAY. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Xeni Jardin
Xeni Jardin can be heard on NPR’s Day to Day, offering technology insights for listeners nationwide. Jardin is also a contributing writer for Wired Magazine, as well as a tech culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative weblog BoingBoing.net, the award-winning "Directory of Wonderful Things."