Things that go beep in the night

The chirps, bings and bongs from electronic devices offer a unique way of communicating.

February 15, 1999|By Nathan Cobb | Nathan Cobb,BOSTON GLOBE

Question from the 1960s: Who put the bomp in the bomp-da-bomp-da-bomp? Question for the 1990s: Who puts the beep in the cell phones?

And it's not just the beeps. It's the chirps, the bings, and the bongs. It's the bells and the whistles. It's the whole cacophony of electronic burps that are embedded in microchips inside automobiles, cash machines, stereo gear, answering machines, wristwatches, toys, cameras, computer hardware, fax machines, copiers and coffee makers.

Not so long ago the alarm clock and the telephone were pretty much the only buzzes in our lives. Now we're surrounded by dozens of cheap trills.

``When I was a kid we had very few of these sounds, because we didn't have things like microwave ovens and cell phones and ATMs,'' says Mark Barasch, 41, a former jazz guitarist who is now a sound designer in New York. ``I mean, these devices didn't replace anything. They're relatively new, and so are the sounds they make. And there may be room for millions more.''

Beeps and bongs are nowhere more ubiquitous than in cars, where sound designers have decreed that noise means status. Drivers of upscale models tend to get audio warnings of, say, near-empty gas tanks or unlatched trunks, while owners of more plebeian models do not.

``Chimes in particular tend to be used more often in expensive cars,'' says Charles Richlie, a design engineer for Visteon Automotive Systems in Detroit, a Ford subsidiary. ``Somebody here obviously decided that chimes sound expensive.''

Richlie creates hardware that alerts drivers via tones (''Those are the beeps,'' he explains) and chimes (''Those are the bongs''). He notes that chimes usually bong at speeds of 60, 120 or 240 times per minute. The fastest rate is designed to create a sense of urgency - warning you, for instance, that, yikes, you've left your key in the ignition. Richlie's current project: a beep to warn you that you've left your turn signal on too long.

The source of beeps and bongs varies. Many are turned out by engineers who borrow them from CD libraries or online archives. But others are created by specialists who often work in ``human factors'' laboratories. They expound on the importance of ``interface sound design,'' and sometimes speak not of bells and whistles, but of ``earcons'' (as in icons for the ears).

At Timex Corp. in Middlebury, Conn. (where one wristwatch is so noisy it's called Beepwear), shifting demographics are literally changing the tune. Says Ron Lizzi, a Timex senior software engineer: ``As people age, they become less sensitive to higher frequencies. That means we're now tending to favor lower frequency tones in our watches.''

Meanwhile, Timex has discovered a gender gap. ``Women don't like beeps as much as men do,'' Lizzi says.

Timex watches emit all sorts of small noises: alarms, hourly chimes, timers, and so forth. The sounds are made by tiny piezoelectric crystals that vibrate in response to current sent from a microchip. They're not particularly sophisticated noises, nor is the method for testing them. The engineers most often rely on advice from Timex marketing specialists.

``Or we might try them out on whoever happens to be in the hallway at the time,'' Lizzi says.

But at Bell Labs, the New Jersey-based research arm of Lucent Technologies, the testing is far less casual. Bell's Integrated User Experience Group might, for example, invite outsiders to rate a gaggle of sounds given off by an assortment of cellular telephones. Are the sounds loud enough? Are they pleasant? Are they annoying? Are they distinct?

The sounds a product emits can roughly be divided into two categories, ``confirmation'' and ``error.'' It's important that users not mix them up.

``As a rule, a confirmation tone is a higher tone that curves upward,'' explains Joanne Walsh, a technical manager at Bell Labs. ``Error tones are lower, and they curve down.''

we know learn early in life when an electronic sound is trying to tell us we've done good or done bad. ``My 5-year-old can't read, but he already knows the difference between a 'good' tone and a 'bad' tone,'' says Veronica Frischman, who tests Lucent products against competing units. ``And my kids have always said 'beep-beep' when they wanted their bottles, because the oven beeped when the bottles were ready.''

Barasch, the guitarist turned sound designer, considers consumer product sounds to be an art form. He thinks they should elicit emotional responses ranging from gladness to sadness.

Barasch remembers the test he was given when he first bid on work for Bell Labs. ``A guy from Bell came in and asked me to create the sound of a phone ringing. And the sound of the ringing had to tell a person - before he answered it - that a baby had been born. So I created it. It was the sound of a celeste, which is a glockenspiel-like instrument, playing a short melody twice.''

He got the job.

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