Concert-hall Acoustics (1/3)

Lokki, T. (2014). Tasting music like wine: Sensory evaluation of concert halls. Physics Today, 67(1), 27.

A few months ago, I read this article called “Tasting Music like Wine: Sensory evaluation of concert halls” by Tapio Lokki and was fascinated by two things:

– The lightness of the article and how it introduced such a complex topic as concert-hall acoustics with an anecdotal situation;

– The methodological intrincacy with all the 3D sounds recorded in such an enginious way (all orchestra musicians were recorded solo, placed 24 columns in a stage, each column playing only one instrument, and recorded the full “orchestra” in several places of the venue. Very simply put.)

– After all, there were three interesting things: I loved the use of Wine tasting know-how for the evaluation of the subjective experience of concert-halls.

So the situation is the author and his wife are listening to a concert while drinking some wine. While the wife enjoys the concert but not so much the wine, the author felt totally the opposite. Both perceived wine and music differently. After some thought, the author concluded that both wine and music have a lot in common, because each can be characterized by a multidimensional array of perceptual attributes.

Both are a matter of personal taste, and each person may concentrate on different aspects of the taste or sound. The thing is, winemakers have a solution for this, and have since long developed techniques to determine what makes good or bad wine.

Like the aroma wheel.

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The first question than is: could these methods be tailored for the perceptual evaluation of concert-halls?

The wine tasting methods like sensory profiling demand comparison of samples, that is, imagine you have a table with a line of glasses, all with wines different from each other, and you may and must drink a sip from one and the other as many times as you, as an assessor, find necessary. Could this be made with sound?

The answer is yes, and please read the original article to find out how.

In winetasting two methods are used to gather attributes of wines: consensus vocalubary profiling, when a number of assessors reach a number of consensual adjectives for each wine; and individual vocabulary profiling – the one used in this work – where a number of assessors (usually 15 or more) salient which charactersitics can be found in the wine.

The first experiment had 20 listeners, and all heard 3 recording positions out of 3 Finnish concert-hals. Together, they’ve suggested 102 attributes. After clustering the data, one cluster (overall volume and perceived distance) managed to explain more than 50% of the variance.

The second experiment had only one distance – 12m from the stage -, 9 halls and 17 assessors. They’ve suggested 60 attributes clustered in 7 groups.

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  1. Definition
  2. Clarity
  3. Reverberance
  4. Loudness
  5. Envelopment
  6. Bassiness
  7. Proximity

After more analysis (hierarchical multiple-factor analysis), it was possible to distinguish two groups out of this last evaluation (after ordering by preference also): one group preferred intimate sound in which they could easily distinguish individual instruments and lines, and another group which preferred louder and more reverberant sound with good envelopment and strong bass.

Very impressive how it was possible to understand this information. Would portuguese listeners make the same evaluation?

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(4/4) DesignX

(See part 1part 2 and part 3 of 4)

In the spirit of muddling through, designers can deal with complex systems by “dividing and conquering”, ie, working in modules, numerous small and incremental steps.

Incrementalism as a strategy for dealing with large, complex systems has a respectable history. The major argument was put forward by the political scientist Charles Lindblom, made popular in his papers entitled “muddling through.”15 Incrementalism is the process of moving forward in small, considered steps, fitting the opportunities offered by each successive present, rather than by tackling the entire problem all at once with a single leap into an unknown future. Why? Because major projects involve so many cultural issues, changes in work practices, and changes in the division of work across different professional categories of workers, as well as strong contrasting viewpoints that make the political issues dominate, either leading to stalemate or requiring so many compromises that it is not feasible to make a solid prediction of the future state on the basis of current knowledge, so the future vision is extremely likely to overlook important emerging effects, and the project is slated for failure.

Muddling through” means acting opportunistically, taking whatever action is possible at the moment. Small steps do not ignite the passions as much as large ones, so they can often be approved. Moreover, success in small steps simplifies the approval process for future steps, whereas failure of a small step does not lead to failure of the entire effort. The operations don’t have to be perfect: they simply need to be approximations to the desired end result, to be “good enough,” or in Simon’s terms, they should “satisfice” rather than optimize.

So. All in all, what can designers do?

  • Modularity
  • Attention to social, cultural and political issues

(3/4) DesignX

(See part 1 and part 2 of 4)

HCD however, can be the design contribution to complex systems, in the sense that it treats the human part of these systems. It can observe the “social, regulatory, and economic pressures upon the people involved”. Still, there are four current limitations:

  1. Design is a tool and should work collaboratively with others
  2. Designers lack experience and methods in understanding inter-relationships (they are great with components, though). According to the authors, this is where designers must develop new ways of dealing with complex systems.
  3. The lack of consideration for human psychology and human factors in these complex systems
  4. Designers tend to focus upon the front of the development cycle, developing a clearly defined end-result, leaving implementation to others. With complex systems and services, as we discuss later in this paper, this is no longer a viable solution: designers must continue through the implementation stage.”

Although what has been discussed is how there are different perspectives looking and interpreting the same problems and how each intends to deal with them, the biggest, major problem lies in the implementation of large scale sociotechnical systems.

Even when all technical issues are solved – and I think all HMI professionals can identify with this – it is hard to implement the recommendations. The authors distinguish four properties as the source of most difficulties:

  1. System Design that Does Not Take into Account Human Psychology
  2. Human Cognition: The Human Tendency to Want Simple Answers, Decomposable Systems, and Straightforward Linear Causality
  3. Multiple Disciplines and Perspectives
  4. Mutually Incompatible Constraints

When some of these are combined (3 and 4, for example), compromises need to be made, and while some technical, social and cultural adjustments can be made, sometimes they can result in an absolute blockade of the resolution.

All in all, if designers don’t address these issues right at the beginning of the design stages, the implementation will very likely fail.

(2/4) DesignX

(See part 1 of 4)

These complex problems can be characterized by nine properties, divided into three categories (please read the article for full details on each):

 The Psychology of Human Behavior and Cognition

  1. System Design that Does Not Take into Account Human Psychology.
  2. Human Cognition: The Human Tendency to Want Simple Answers, Decomposable Systems, and Straightforward Linear Causality.

The Social, Political, and Economic Framework of Complex Sociotechnical Systems

  1. Multiple Disciplines and Perspectives
  2. Mutually Incompatible Constraints

 The Technical Issues that Contribute to the Complexity of DesignX Problems

  1. Non-Independence of Elements
  2. Non-Linear Causal Relations: Feedback
  3. Long and Unpredictable Latencies
  4. Multiple Scale Sizes
  5. Dynamically Changing Operating Characteristics

In 2015 Don Norman made a keynote talk at the Relating Systems Thinking and Design 4th Symposium.

Here, besides referring how designers are ill-trained for today’s problems, he made an interesting metaphor relating to those who are trained with a human centered design (HCD) perspective. The HCD method, because of its constant iteration and improvement, is like climbing one mountain. The mountain is the problem. HCD normally knows exactly what is the mountain, where’s its fixed place and its environs. The problem with complex systems, is that sometimes it’s not obvious which is the mountain, and due to their dynamic nature, their environs are always changing.

In this talk, he mentions how these systems are always “kind of working”, and how we normally don’t create systems, but manageable organizations which don’t interact with each other. “They don’t work necessarily well, but they muddle through quite well”.

(Continues in Part 3 of 4)

(1/4) DesignX

In 2014, The Design Collective authored a manifesto entitled “DesignX: A future path for design”. It focused on the propagation of complex problems to solve, and on where could designers play a role while still having a crafts-oriented education, focused on subject specificity.

Since then, much has been discussed as to the available tools to solve complex sociotechnical problems, like healthcare and education, and whereas one could argue DesignX is a new perspective on the subject.

In 2016, the paper “DesignX: Complex Sociotechnical Systems” was published in She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, written by Donald A. Norman and Pieter Jan Stappers. It is a very interesting piece of writing, as it summarizes this perspective of dealing with very complex problems, identifies current issues – like deficient communication – and details the core of most complex systems’ problems: implementation.

Complex societal systems include healthcare, transportation, automation, environmental protection, among others. These have a number of different technical or scientific components that make the system move and work when interacting. Fortunately, thanks to the late UX hype, designers have been included in the design of these complex systems, applying methods such as design thinking and human-centered design. Nevertheless, most designers’ education if focused on craft-like skills (2D, 3D). But when confronted with these big problems, it seems really hard to understand where that helps or fits.

The concept of a complex system is later exemplified with a project developed by UCSD’s Design Lab and Health Departments aiming at the enhancement of the care of cancer patients in Radiation Oncology. This treatment requires interaction with multiple specialists and a multi-disciplinary review board. Often these interactions are illustrated in complex flowcharts demonstrating relations and hierarchies. Boxes and arrows. Often as well, these arrows hide some of the most frequent problems: differences between disciplines, perspectives and priorities, schedules, available facilities, etc.

(Continues in Part 2 of 4)

Sad Music

Why, for instance, should we ascribe sadness to a particular piece of music? “There’s nothing intrinsically sad about this music, so how do we extract sadness from that?” She uses four parameters: speed, intensity, regularity, and extent—whether something is small or large, soft or loud. Angry speech might be rapid, loud, rough and broken. So might an angry piece of music. Someone who’s walking at a moderate pace using regular strides and not stomping around might be seen as content, whereas a person slowly shuffling, with small steps and an irregular stride, might be displaying that they’re sad. Lim’s hypothesis, as yet untested, is that mothers convey emotion to their babies through those qualities of speed, intensity, regularity, and extent in their speech and facial expressions—so humans learn to think of them as markers of emotion.

Angelica Lim, “How long until a robot cries?”

Issue 1, Nautilus

The Philosopher Who Says We Should Play God

One of my last posts was about a science magazine I’ve just signed up for. Some articles are really really good, like this one on how we were right futurizing about drones and self-driving cars but forgot about women’s emancipation.

But this one, this interview with a philosopher and ethics professor in Oxford, Julian Savulescu, it left me in a state no interview or article has ever left before. Awe, wtf?, hmm, and other three letter words. It is a discussion about the means to reach the ends, about the new questions that will arise and that we must think of, and about the old dangers inherent to the changes the future will bring.

Please. Do read:

The Philosopher Who Says We Should Play God

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ILLUSTRATION BY JACKIE FERRENTINO