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Industrial alarms take their cues from the countryside

15 January 2015

Forget klaxons, these researchers think the sounds of chirping birds and rustling branches are better at alerting staff to problems on the production line.

Computer scientists at Bielefeld University and the University of Vienna have been studying the effectiveness of industrial alarm systems, which, in many cases are visual, occasionally supplemented with additional audible warnings - klaxons, horns, stentorian pre-recorded voices, and the like.

“Up until now, monitoring processes has been a visually supported field of work,” says computer scientist Thomas Hermann. “Computer screens or displays at control desks show whether everything is in order. With large quantities information, though, something can easily slip by unnoticed. Staff must maintain a high level of concentration to keep all processes in check."

Now, Dr Herman, along with co-researchers, Tobias Hildebrandt and Professor Stefanie Rinderle-Ma from the University of Vienna, have come up with a new system using additional acoustic signals to provide what they describe as a kind of passive monitoring - surveillance that can be accomplished alongside other tasks.

In a production line simulation, each station was given a different sound: the delivery is announced with the sound of chirping birds, bees buzzing are assigned to another station, and the sounds of branches rustling in the wind are heard at another. Meanwhile, outgoing shipments are coded with the sound of dripping water. If everything is running normally, all four sounds are discretely in the background.

“We chose these woodland sounds because they compose an acoustic ambience that is both pleasant to listen to and unobtrusive,” says Dr Hermann. If a problem occurs at a particular station, the sound that belongs to that station increases in volume. A staff member can then react to correct the problem.

“Monitoring processes by listening has several advantages,” says Dr Hermann. “Distraction is less of an issue in comparison to visual monitoring. Moreover, we use our ears to perceive everything that is going on around us. With our eyes, we must look precisely at the thing that is important to the current task.

According to Dr Hermann, auditory stimuli are processed more quickly than visual stimuli. “The special feature of listening is that people are able to recognize the smallest changes in tones," he says.

Their new system is dubbed 'SoProMon' (Sonification system for process monitoring as secondary task) 

The systematic representation of data using non-speech sound (sonification) is not exactly new. In 2012, Dr Hermann worked with Berlin media artists to produce software that defines the German 'Twitterscape' in sounds.

The software automatically assigns a sound to a topic. When a Twitter user writes a short message touching on the topic, the assigned sound can be heard. Dr Hermann’s research group - 'Ambient Intelligence' - develops intelligent environments, novel interactive objects, and alarm-type systems to support humans in everyday life.

In addition to sonification, the researchers also focus on multi-modal interaction, which is the principle that a device communicates with its user through several senses – from hearing to touch – and can also be controlled by the user via different sensory inputs.

More information on this work can be found here.

Les Hunt

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