Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu


New ‘hearing’ maps are real conversation starters

11 March 2010

Audibility MapAn audibility map showing the intelligibility that would be experienced by a listener in every part of a room with a lot of echoes. Intelligibility is best (red) near where the person is talking and weakest at the blue area which is close to a noise source. The software can make similar predictions for any number and distribution of noise sources

Innovative sound-mapping software based on human hearing could help architects design out unwanted noise in such spaces as open-plan offices and meeting spaces.

The new software generates audibility maps of proposed room designs and has been developed by a team of academics in the School of Psychology and Welsh School of Architecture. Led by Professor John Culling, the project has been funded by the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council).

These maps show hotspots where conversations would not be intelligible if the room were busy. Architects can then adjust their designs to reduce reverberation until the hotspots are eliminated and audibility is maximised.

School of Psychology’s Professor John Culling, said: "Software already exists to help architects predict how a building will perform acoustically for an audience in places like theatres and concert halls. This new software is specifically designed to improve the acoustic design of indoor spaces where a large number of people meet, chat and interact. It could be used for business as well as social purposes, for example, in designing open-plan offices, cafes and reception areas."

The new software also produces results much more rapidly than other acoustic software. The key to its capabilities is the unprecedented sophistication and computational efficiency of the unique mathematical equation that underpins it. The equation has been built up using the project team’s cutting-edge research looking at how people take in sound through both ears as it travels round busy rooms and how noise sources are affected by each other. This means it can accurately predict acoustic quality at every point in an indoor space where people are likely to gather and talk.

Professor Culling says, "Architects will be able to call their proposed design onto their computer screen and run the software, which will ask them to specify the locations of the main sound sources in the room. An audibility map will then automatically be produced and the architect will be able to change the room’s dimensions, its shape and/or the materials to be used, until hotspots are eliminated. This means that rooms could be tailor-made to suit their purpose."

The new software is intended to be used in conjunction with standard architectural computer programs widely employed in room design.

The team’s work will also make a significant difference to areas where audibility is important, such as rail and airport announcement waiting areas. In emergency situations such clarity could be vital in saving lives. And the research will also help in the future development of hearing aids and cochlear implants.

"Our objective now is to identify and work with a software company to help us develop the software further and market it," says Professor Culling. "Hopefully it will be available for architects to use within the next 12 months."

The three-and-a-half year project ‘Effects of Reverberation on Conversation in Rooms’ is due to run until July 2010. It is receiving EPSRC funding of just under £350,000.

A podcast featuring Professor Culling can be heard on the EPSRC Pioneer Video section.

Related links