Silence isn't just golden, it's an absolute necessity for Binghamton University Professor Ron Miles. Miles, a distinguished professor of mechanical engineering and associate dean of the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is an expert in acoustics. His current work involves building a better hearing aid, and for that he needs an extraordinarily quiet room.
The University's new anechoic chamber (a room without echo) is the ideal place for him to test his tiny microphones. It is built in such a way that it is both sound proof and sound waves cannot bounce off anything within it. In fact, Miles says, "If you got locked in, you could scream and no one would ever hear you!" That makes it a perfect environment in which to test how sound radiates from its source and moves around objects or bodies.
Miles' background in noise control began at Boeing, where his job was to stop the roar of the engines from entering the aircraft. Today his focus is on creating an audio aid that helps an individual with hearing issues distinguish speech from background noise.
"It's the cocktail party effect," Miles says. "You're struggling to understand the person in front of you through the mass of competing voices and sounds. Everyone has this problem, but it's maddeningly frustrating if your ears aren't working well."
Miles has invented a tiny microphone that can filter unwanted sounds. The device is so sensitive that regular labs are too noisy for testing. Now Miles can test his microphone in a brand new, state-of-the-art underground lab.
To keep the anechoic chamber free from outside sounds and vibrations, it is encased in multiple layers of drywall, thick insulation and a lot of concrete. It also "floats" on springs, to keep it physically separate from the building it's in. He must navigate four sets of doors before even entering the chamber. Inside, every surface is covered with hundreds of fiberglass wedges, which absorb sound. A wire-mesh floor over the wedges allows Miles and others to access the chamber to conduct tests.
While it sounds like a dream come true for anyone seeking a quiet and peaceful place, Miles says it can be a little unnerving. "It's not a place you would want to hang out. All of a sudden you're in an environment where there is no reflection of sound, and your usual perception is gone. It can be creepy."
But for microphone research it is ideal. Miles' research is a new approach to designing and fabricating the tiny directional microphone that is key to improving conversation for the hearing impaired. The hearing aid technology he is working on, however, still needs additional development. It is believed this chamber will allow Miles and his fellow researchers the ability to more easily detect where sounds are coming from and identify their source. With that information, he and his team can design a device to help those with hearing issues communicate without so many noisy distractions.
"There's still not anything man-made that can compete with our ears when they're working well," says Miles.
Not yet anyway.
The above story is based on materials provided by Binghamton University, State University of New York. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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