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A View from Wade Roush

Seeing Phone Conversations

Given that we’re visual creatures, it’s surprising how much of the day we spend immersed in an audio-only medium: the telephone. But at the MIT Media Lab, researchers have built a device that bridges that gap, adding a mesmerizing visual…

  • August 12, 2004

Given that we’re visual creatures, it’s surprising how much of the day we spend immersed in an audio-only medium: the telephone. But at the MIT Media Lab, researchers have built a device that bridges that gap, adding a mesmerizing visual component to phone conversations. Don’t think picture-phones, which have repeatedly flopped with consumers: instead the Visiphone, developed by Karrie Karahalios and colleagues in the Media Lab’s Sociable Media group, displays abstract symbols representing the sounds made by each speaker over time.

You’ll need to see it in action to understand it, but in essence, the Visiphone is a glass half-dome that fits over a small video projector. When someone speaks, a colored circle shows up at the center of the dome, with the size of the circle representing the volume of the speech. As the conversation progresses, the original circle slowly spirals out to the edge of the dome, replaced by new circles at the center.

The researchers call the device an experiment in the “social and aesthetic aspects of visualizations of sound,” with the goal of enhancing each speaker’s awareness of the other and, in a sense, allowing people calling across long distances to keep each other company. At the moment the Visiphone is more akin to a modern art installation or a science-museum display than a practical tool–but then again, building sometimes-wacky prototypes that stimulate original thinking about the technologies around us is where the Media Lab excels.

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