Sunday, February 25, 2001

Say What?

When I pulled out the headphones on the Japan Airlines flight coming back from Tokyo, a slender box about the size of a lipstick was attached somewhere in the middle of the cable. It had a single switch embedded marked "on" and "off," as well as a little red light to indicate its operation. No directions were offered, no explanations were attached. Just earphones on one end, a plug on the other, and this strange little contraption in the middle. I held one of the earpieces up to my ear and flipped the switch. The red light glowed, nothing more. No color change, no siren erupting, no temperature drop. So I switched it off and plugged them in, the better to while away the 12 hours it takes to travel from the Far East to the Near East.

Somewhere over Alaska I was deep in the middle of a bad movie. I was getting restless, and so started to play with the seat controls. I moved myself up and down, turned my reading light on and off, tried to stiffen up the backrest. Invariably, my thumb wandered down my headset cable to that little black box and switch, which I idly slid to "on."

Suddenly, the noise subsided while the movie continued; that whirring and rushing sound that was the plane slipping through the atmosphere at 500 miles per hour disappeared. My stomach turned, as I ripped off my headphones, thinking that perhaps the engines had quit, and I should have paid better attention during the safety demonstration. But no, the sounds in the cabin seemed equal to what they had been earlier. I slipped the earpieces back on, only to hear the same movie and the same silence. I flipped the switch off; the rush returned. On, and it went away again. It seems that in my fidgeting I had stumbled upon better living through chemistry, in the form of noise cancellation.

A search through the seat back pocket turned up a flyer describing the device. Through the use of little microphones built into the outside of the earpieces, the pattern of incoming sound is reversed and applied to itself, effectively neutralizing it. You're actually listen to twice the amount of static, but since one is positive and one is negative, nothing remains to hear. It's acoustic arithmetic, where one plus minus-one equals zero. Or more conceptually, it's Star Trek, Episode 37, where some mad alien threatens all the matter in the universe with an anti-matter device and Captain Kirk has to save us all, writ small.

Now, when you think about devices that have the power to improve your lot, this would seem to be one that would be high on the list. Whether it's the lawn mower, a garbage truck beeping as it backs up or just the crickets that start in earnest at first light in the summer, just think what peace you might bring to your world if you applied this technology liberally.

Unfortunately, the device itself seems just to work well with repetitive sounds. However, if the manufacturers want to broaden the appeal, they should invest in some R&D and see if they could get the gizmo to work on human voices that aren't going "Om" again and again. Then you could offset offending spouses, tune-out troublesome bosses or filter frantic children. Now we're talking some serious quality of life issues.

But the big advance would come if they could take that final step, and produce not just a negative sound image, but a counterbalancing one. The difference, I grant you, is a subtle one. The idea is that that rather than combating a fire siren with a negative fire siren, produce a waterfall instead. Or if they can get the human voice thing to work, a person wearing the headphones wouldn't hear, "Wilson, your work on that project stunk" but rather "Wilson, your work on that project was brilliant." Now, that's user-friendly electronics.

In the classic Mel Brooks/Buck Henry television comedy of the sixties, Don Adams played a bumbling secret agent working in a farcical intelligence agency named Control in "Get Smart." Written as a spoof of James Bond movies, it included the requisite villains, women, outlandish plots and evil organizations. Don, as Maxwell Smart, also had the defining gadgets that proved his covert pedigree, including his trademark shoe phone. But to many viewers, one of the funniest bits happened when there was something critical to talk about and Max asked the Chief, his boss at the agency, to "lower the Cone of Silence." They stepped under a Plexiglas hood, from which no sound was supposed to escape. Invariably, they wound up screaming at each other to overcome its effects, or the buzzing of a fly trapped underneath was amplified to deafening levels. In trying to counteract the forces at play, they eventually banged their heads on the hood, or grew hoarse from screaming. Either way, the device didn't work as advertised.

But these headphones did. I have since seen commercial versions advertised in upscale magazines for a hundred bucks or more. That's a steep price to pay to offset the rush of the wind or the drone of an engine. But if they can work out the human voice thing, I for one might be interested. After all, how much would be worth to change, "Honey, go take out the garbage" to Honey, go take a nap." As they say on the Visa commercials...priceless.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a nasty habit of hearing only what he wants to hear. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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