When my wife lay in a hospital bed for several weeks with a burst appendix, I spent a lot of time by her side. I was horrified by the cacophony in the recovery ward. How can anyone expect to heal when they are surrounded by a jungle of machines beeping incessantly? And what about the hospital staff? I decided that the nurses could just as easily be responding to the sound of bird calls. These machines could be playing the sounds of songbirds instead of emitting the sonic equivalent of a finger repeatedly poking you in the eye. Not only would bird calls make for a more pleasant soundscape in the hospital, but different bird calls could be used for different meanings.

Below is a poem I wrote many years ago which expresses my feelings about the way machines talk to us.


I came to the conclusion the other day
That our machines have something to say
Our cars, our phones, our computer screens,
Our ovens and our bank machines

They’re learning how to speak to us
Yes, times are changing and so they must
How could we ever get along
If they didn’t tell us when something’s wrong?

“Your seatbelt’s off”
“Don’t forget your card”
“Don’t click me there”
“Don’t press too hard”

But the builders of these technologies
Have yet to give them personalities
I think our machines might benefit, you see,
By having a bigger vocabulary!

There’s another gripe I need to share
A concern for which you may not care
There’s pollution in my neighborhood
I’d love to end it if I could

You hear that incessant beep beep beep?
It woke me from my morning sleep
Six blocks east on Main and First
A van just went into reverse

The device which generates this din
was built to reach the ears within
a ten block radius of this city
that all may know the van’s velocity

Folks living in a future world
May wince and twitch at what they once heard
Recalling the voice of our technology
This low-resolution cacaphony


Beep beep beep beep!

This is the third post of my new blog. I expect to have more things to say about body language in user interface design – not just regarding avatars in virtual worlds. I think the subject of virtual body language spans across all kinds of technology.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!


4 Responses to Beep

  1. I agree with the ‘audio-equivalent of poking you in the eye’… but here’s a thought: is it really the specific sound.. or is it more the connection it has – the meaning it was given – that creates the unrest? Consider this: if we were to use a pleasant bird call to notify a nurse about a severe emergency, would this (formerly pleasant) sound not soon become very unnerving for the nurses?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good point Martin! Thanks for that observation.

    The real problem, I think, is not whether the noise is pleasant or unpleasant, but that the same annoying beep is used for different purposes – some being more important than others. I don’t have an easy solution to this problem in a hospital setting – not knowing much about that environment. But I know for a fact that the number of beeps generated in that hospital room was much greater than the number of severe emergencies.

    I have observed that many (many) things in our environment beep at us at the same frequency, for the same length of time, and for varying reasons. Gas pumps are one example. The most annoying example was when I recently borrowed a friend’s Toyota Prius, which was loaded with features, all of which created the same horrible beep. I thought driving a Prius was going to be a pleasant experience (ok, it was for the most part – but communicating with the Prius was not fun – in fact it was very annoying). Cars are becoming more like living beings – with increasing amounts of computed AI. They have to acquire better communication skills. Better than….beep!

    • One thought regarding the ‘always the same sound and frequency’: the human ear (and the psyche) will very soon learn to filter this out. If the sounds were varied for each pice of equipment (and each type of notification) we’d soon have a cacophony of sounds. Using natural sounds like birdsong, rain, etc. in this case really starts to make sense. I remember there were some tools that can audiophy network traffic that are used for sysadmin to monitor the system health of a network by ear. The net would sound a certain way on normal days, a pattern that becomes known and the ear blends it out. If something changes in the traffic, the aureal picture changes and the ear picks this up immediately, becomes alert.

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