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New tech blocks noise disruption faster than the speed of sound

MUTE: Bringing IoT to Noise Cancellation

We’ve all been there: You finished checking social media and are finally ready to get down to some serious work when a construction crew starts drilling a hole in the sidewalk or your neighbor decides to mow their lawn. Sure, there are noise-canceling headphones available, but they’re kind of bulky and not necessarily things you want to wear for a long period of time. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a smarter solution that takes advantage of cutting-edge Internet of Things connectivity?

That’s the mission researchers from the University of Illinois’ Coordinated Science Laboratory have been working toward. Looking for a less bulky, intrusive solution to the problem of disruptive noise, they are busy developing a wireless network that can act more rapidly than sound travels.

“We spread a few IoT devices in the environment, each containing a microphone and a wireless transmitter,” Sheng Shen, a researcher on the project, told Digital Trends. “Their job is to listen to the noisy sounds much earlier than us, and send the signals to our ear-devices [wirelessly]. Because wireless signals travel 1 million times faster than sound, our ear-device gets to know the noise samples much earlier before they actually arrive at our ears.”

University of Illinois

Leveraging this “speed difference,” the team’s system achieves much better noise-cancellation performance, which kicks into action by playing an anti-noise signal only when it’s necessary. At this point, it uses the same noise-canceling waveform technology as regular noise-cancellation devices, creating a wave 180 degrees out of phase with the ambient noise. This works like an eraser for the noise in question: scrubbing it out so you no longer have to listen.

While the University of Illinois’ approach still requires an earpiece of some kind — either over-the-ear headphones or earbuds — these don’t need to entirely block the ear canal. Because they don’t have to be made of materials that absorb sound, they can also be made more comfortable to wear.

The system isn’t perfect, though. For one thing, you need to have multiple connected microphones around you to cover the possibility of sound from any angle. Nonetheless, when the completed setup is achieved, participants testing it rated it more favorably than the results achieved by even the current leading noise-canceling headphone makers.

Coming soon to a smart home near you. We really, really hope.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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