In this opinion piece, Joel Beckerman makes the case for why and how sonic tech will be a key to arresting the spread of viruses and disease in everyday consumer experiences

In a post-COVID world, we’re now keenly aware of how many doors we’ve touched, screens we’ve tapped and buttons we’ve pushed. Over the past few weeks, it has occurred to me dozens of times that an action I’ve taken with my hand—to push or press or swipe—could have been cued auditorily, eliminating the need for contact. It’s clear we are in a tactile-first world.

Why Do We Still Underestimate the Power of Sound?

I believe sound may be the most under-leveraged, under-utilized opportunity in products and spaces for three reasons:

It's likely the most effective single way to change behavior and help design loved experiences that make people long for more.

It may be the least expensive way to make consumers feel good about your brand in an instant, and want to linger or return.

It helps companies design more intuitive experiences to the betterment of guests and employees.

Product and customer experience designers are beginning to realize more and more that the most powerful tech interfaces are ones that are so intuitive, they almost disappear seamlessly into the background of our awareness—because they emulate so well how people already interact in the world. Think of the Apple iPhone ‘sent mail' sound. The ‘touch’ makes sense and the ‘sound’ sounds like what it should like: a plane taking off and zipping your email across the world. No one had to teach you what that sound means. It’s intuitive. Now, we listen for the hum of that plane to signal that our email has, in fact, been sent. Without it, we question.

Sound-first design approach also creates incredible opportunities for cleaner and fewer tactile interactions, fostering environments that are more hygienic, safe and instantaneous. Here are a few powerful potential applications:

Pushing Customer Service Away from Dirty Counters and into the Grocery Aisle
On an empty grocery store shelf, basic voice technology would allow you to request a stockist bring more of the desired product from the back room or alert you that it is out of stock. No need to rummage through dirty shelves that haven't been cleaned in who knows how long. Sound may also tell you when the product is expected back in stock, eliminating the need for crowding around a customer service hub and repeated, unnecessary store visits.

Even more ideally, sound would guide us through stores, helping us complete a shopping list faster by directing us to the most efficient route. For example, what if you could just say the word ‘recipe’ as you’re purchasing fish at the seafood counter, and instantly hear an idea on how to prepare your selection for your family, or stretch a meal a little further? What if you could ask for any item you need, no matter where you were in the store, and instantly have wayfinding tech—like floor lighting—guide you to that item or navigate you directly to what you need to cook a recipe? Or better yet, what if that request was routed directly to a store attendant, who could bring the item to you? 

Gamifying Airport Hand Washing
When entering an airplane terminal, a pleasing sound that ‘sounds’ like safety leads you to the hand sanitizer station. These stations could even be a sonic ‘game’ for the kids, changing the sound as you get closer and leading the way whether in a market, a mall or a playground. Make it fun! And then, later, the same friendly, fun sound reminds you to do the same after airport security or just before you’re about to choose your favorite produce.

Sonifying Subways and Stop Lights
Mass transit, museum interactions and even stoplights could be designed ‘sound-first’ to use an intuitive language of sound—sonic semiotics. From 100 yards away, you can tell there is a stop sign by its distinctive shape and color. You no longer need to see ‘STOP’ to understand its meaning. The same can be applied to sound. We can develop a universal understanding of what a sound ‘means’ without having to being told explicitly. When applied at intersections or in transit hubs, sonic wayfinding could prevent visitors from having to touch a walk button, an electronic map or even their cell phone. We all know that such screens carry a multitude of germs. There is no doubt that sound will be one of the key antidotes to arresting the spread of viruses and diseases.

A Symphony for Hospitals
Imagine a nurse walking past a patient room and listening to a ‘symphony of healthcare’—the sonification of complex data sets to help doctors instantly diagnose patient issues without the need to touch screens or even enter the room. The symphony would be purposeful combinations of sound outputs from a variety of medical devices, each having a musical element that lets a nurse know instantly whether that patient needs help, or if they can move on to the next room. As doctors and nurses move between patients less frequently without the need to be directly bedside, there would be fewer possibilities for viral and bacterial transmission from patient to patient.

Hand gestures and voice commands could become the standard for medical devices and physicians around the world. This would enable any physician to instantly operate any device in any hospital with movement and voice, and avoid inadvertent contamination inherent in touch interfaces.

Bottom line: Solutions like these can be harnessed with very little expense, enabling more hygienic experiences for both guests and employees across hospitals, stores, transportation hubs and many other spaces.

Joel Beckerman is an award-winning composer, producer, arranger and author, as well as the founder of Man Made Music, a global sonic studio.