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Review: A little Babble may mean a lot more privacy

Victor R. Garza, Contributor

LAS VEGAS -- Cube dwellers inherently understand that whatever they say can be overheard by other employees in surrounding cubicles, and overhearing someone else's sensitive conversations can be a thorny problem, especially for departments that have to deal with sensitive conversations on a daily basis, many of which deal with financial, legal and human resource issues.

According to Mark Schurman, product manager at Chicago-based Sonare Technologies, its new voice-privacy product called Babble creates true voice privacy, "by taking a user's own voice and by 'Babbling' that voice, creates the perfect camouflage... so that someone who shouldn't be hearing that conversation cannot pick out your actual conversation within the sound of your babbled voice."

Babble, on display at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show, consists of a pair of 180 degree speakers, pointed away from the user and toward potential listeners. After a short training period -- the user must "train" the product by recording all the phonemes (or small phonetic sounds) of the English language -- he or she simply turns on Babble to create a "cone of noise," that consists of the user's recorded voice, according to Schurman.

A Babbled conversation sounds like the user is having three or four conversations simultaneously. From a distance, the sound Babble makes seems very much like a party conversation, where a listener can almost make out identifiable words, but can't. Babble also adjusts

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to a person's speaking volume, and since most private conversations are kept at a low volume, it doesn't add noise to the surrounding area.

Since Babble is pointed away from the primary user, he or she isn't affected by extraneous sounds and can have conversations without impediment. One of the downsides to Babble, however, is the loud cube talker. Since Babble is aware of a user's spoken volume, a loud talker will cause it to create a relatively loud nose that could disturb surrounding cubicle employees.

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Providing roughly 360 degree coverage, according to Schurman, two Babble speakers cover and protect conversations from being heard within that immediate area.

"Anyone outside your immediate area and anyone beyond your immediate area couldn't hear you either," Schurman said. Primarily meant for the cubicle area where there is a lack of voice privacy, he said Babble is for the "…open environment [where] open plan offices are so prevalent today."

The busy show floor provided a chance to "hear" Babble in action. While standing several feet from a person on the phone, I could distinctly make out the conversation, yet when Babble was activated I was unable to understand anything that was spoken. The one caveat was that I not look at the speakers lips, since the Sonare people said that we underestimate our lip reading ability, and looking at the speaker would undermine Babble.

Schurman added that there are several other methods to shield conversation in office and cubicle environments that have met with limited success as opposed to Babble, including adding white or pink noise at high volumes and efforts to change cubicle panel acoustics with different materials.

Also shown at CES by Sonare was a product called Multi-Voice. Where Babble limits one user's voice, Multi-Voice uses similar technology to shield people having face-to-face conversations. Sonare plans to release MultiVoice later in 2006.

Babble retails for $395 for the device itself and the speaker pair. Interestingly enough, Sonare is a division of Zeeland, Mich.-based Herman-Miller Inc., the well-known furniture manufacturer. When asked, Schurman stated that integration of the Babble technology into furniture is one future path for the company, since Herman-Miller does "…explore technology areas, including acoustics." That means in the not-too-distant future, furniture with integrated Babble technology may automatically allow cube dwellers to keep their conversations private.


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