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New ‘hearing’ maps are real conversation starters for architects

08 March 2010

Innovative sound-mapping software developed at Cardiff University and 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.

Professor John Culling from the School of Psychology, 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 our Pioneer Podcast page on iTunes or watch it on our Pioneer Video section.

For more information about the study contact:
Professor John Culling, School of Psychology, Cardiff University. Tel: 029 208 74523 or e-mail:
Images are available from Cardiff University Public Relations Office.

For more media information contact
Lowri Jones
Public Relations and Communications
Cardiff University
T: 02920 870 995

Notes for Editors
1. About the software
The software could potentially work for any room. The current limitation is that, at present, only the effect of continuous noise interference (e.g. a babble of interfering voices) can be correctly predicted. This means the software is not ideally suited to assessing the acoustics of rooms where there are likely to be only a small number of voices.

The mathematical equation treats the binaural system (i.e. the use of two ears to perceive sound) as a bank of directional microphones, each of which operates at a different frequency and has a single-directional null (i.e. an area where the signal is cancelled out completely).

Cafeterias, lobbies and other interior spaces that are badly designed from an acoustic viewpoint tend to have one thing in common: too much reverberation, resulting from design aspects such as low ceilings or the use of materials that are good sound reflectors. By modelling such rooms at the design stage, it will be possible to determine exactly how this reverberation could be reduced. Options could include adding sound-absorbent tiles or panels.

Reverberation occurs when sound waves are reflected in a confined space, causing the sound to persist even after it has ceased to be created.

High ceilings are generally better than low ceilings, in terms of reducing reverberation, as the space they provide acts like a sound absorber.

2. Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning.

EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects – from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering.