WMMNA: The Nonisolation Headphones

These eye-catching headphones filter external sounds to compose noise from the environment, rendering it “differently familiar.”

This weekend, lucky me!, I’m going to Ghent to see ArtBots Gent, the Robot Talent Show. This international art exhibition for robotic art and art-making robots has been created in 2002 by Douglas Repetto of dorkbot fame. I’ll tell you more about it as soon as I’ve seen the show but in the meantime I wanted to highlight one of the participating works. It might not be tremendously robotic but I found it so intriguing that i contacted Alex Braidwood and had him talk about it.

The Noisolation Headphones attempt to correct an oversight of our body: our ears can’t blink. We can’t block out molesting noise as easily as we can shut off light or disturbing images. In 2004 already, Dr Michael Bull was observing that iPods and other m3 players were used to control their environment, and in particular to shield their users from the sound of the city.

The Noisolation Headphones are a critical investigation that transforms the relationship between a person and the noise in their environment. While worn, exposure to the noise is structured through a sequence designated by a composer which controls the behavior of the sound-prevention valves. The composer also determines what values are adjustable by the listener through the single knob built into the device. The headphones mechanically create a personal listening experience by composing noise from the listener’s environment, rendering it differently familiar.

Hi Alex! I’m very curious by the appearance of the Headphones. Why did you make them so attention-grabbing? What would have been lost if the headphones had looked like any other headphones?

I wanted to make an object that would start a conversation. The goal was to make a sort of visual inquiry that would lead a viewer to develop questions of their own about how we listen and our relationship to our sonic environment. As a media designer, I come from a visual background so it was important that the object itself be visually engaging to inspire a dialog. Formally, I wanted the piece to give an indication of what it was going to do but still leave people curious enough to want to listen for themselves. Through the prototyping process, it became a negotiation between the visual appearance and the acoustic qualities of the materials used. The listening experience needed to take on certain transformative characteristics and, as a result, the final selection of materials and form had to be determined by balancing the visual with the acoustic.

My goal was to make people curious enough about the listening experience to want to wear the piece. I don’t think this would have happened if they looked like just any pair of headphones. I like that when people approach me about them, they tell me they aren’t sure what the experience is going to sound like but by looking at the headphones, they know that they want to find out. It also creates a bit of a spectacle when someone is wearing them which tends to expand the immediate audience and extend the conversation in really great directions. When I, or anyone else for that matter, wear them at an event or out on the street, people will stop and ask about what they are, what do they do, what does it sound like, why did I make them, etc. This aspect of the piece has been a lot fun and it would definitely be missing if it weren’t for the visual nature of the piece.

Julian Bleecker wears Alex Braidwood’s Noisolation Headphones by Rhys’ Eyes, on Flickr

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Régine Debatty is the creator of the ‘We Make Money Not Art’ blog and an art show curator. She has also spoken at several conferences and festivals about the way artists, hackers and interaction designers (mis)use technology. Learn more about Régine Debatty.

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