Highlights - August 2015

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An increasing number of modern open-plan offices use sound-masking systems that raise the background sound of a room so that speech is rendered unintelligible beyond a certain distance and distractions are less annoying.

Sound-masking systems are custom-designed for each office space by consultants, and are typically installed as speaker arrays discreetly tucked away in the ceiling. For the past 40 years, the standard masking signal employed is random, steady-state electronic noise — also known as "white noise."

However, according to new research presented recently at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, playing natural sounds such as flowing water in offices could boost worker moods and improve cognitive abilities in addition to providing speech privacy.

The researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are currently testing whether masking signals inspired by natural sounds might work just as well, or better, than the conventional signal.

The idea was inspired by previous work that showed that people's ability to regain focus improved when they were exposed to natural sounds versus silence or machine-based sounds.

The natural sound used in the experiment was designed to mimic the sound of flowing water in a mountain stream. The mountain stream sound possessed enough randomness that it did not become a distraction, which appears to be a key attribute of a successful masking signal.


Chicago Tribune, May 21, 2015, "Sound of a Babbling Brook Could Make You More Productive at Work." © 2015 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

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