TIM PERKIS:    WRITINGS 


  Auditory Display: Sonification, Audification, and Auditory Interfaces.
edited byGregory Kramer. Addison Wesley, Reading, MA 1994.

This volume is the proceedings of the first International Conference on Auditory Display, which was held at the Santa Fe Institute in 1992.  The emerging field of Auditory Display is sort of a grabbag of researchers coming from a variety of disciplines: pychoacousticians, computer interface designers, musicians, geologists, chemists and physicists. What they and the papers in this volume all have in common is an interest in the use of non-speech sound to convey information.  For some this means "audification" or "sonification" of  arbitrary data; for others the issue is design of effective sound-based computer interfaces.  A CD is enclosed with 96 short tracks of examples from eleven of the twenty-one papers in the volume. 

The papers could be classified into four groups: theoretical papers, either arguing for the effectiveness of this relatively new concept of sonification or exploring psychoacoustic factors determining the available parameters in audification systems; application papers, descriptions  of systems using this  approach to the display of experimental data;  "toolbox" papers, describing algorithms for sound creation and/or organization which may be of use to sonifiers; and computer interface design papers, involved with organizing and somehow extending the world of beeps and boops used in computer graphic user interfaces.

The most effective examples on the disc make use of our innate ability to immediately grasp dynamic contours in acoustic spaces.  Two papers, one by David Jameson, and another by Jay Alan Jackson and Joan M. Francioni, map the operation of computer algorithms to sound, as a way to grasp the behavior of programs for debugging. This is a very convincing use of sound: listening to these bubble sorts, parallel programs passing messages to each other, programs searching for equation roots, we get a real sense of the overall dynamics of the systems involved, which could quite plausibly be of use in debugging or fine-tuning the program action. Similarly the example by Kramer and W. Tecumseh Fitch is very strong. In this system for monitoring multiple biomedical variables heartbeat and respiration are monitored more or less directly; additional variables  of CO2 level and blood pressure ride "piggy-back" on these basic streams, modifying  the timbres of the basic sounds.  I think a basic princible of good sonification design is at play here: if possible convey real dynamics. 

Less successful to my ear are the more abstract and arbitrary scatter plots and experiments in direct data sonification that are included. In fact the disc is a somewhat disappointing experience overall, and leaves one with a new appreciation for the artfulness necessary in the design of effective displays. 

In addition to the papers mentioned above there are several additional papers well worth the price of admission: Gottfried Mayer-Kress et al.'s fascinating paper on musical uses of data from chaotic attractors might perhaps better belong in the pages of this journal;  Jonathan Cohen and William Gaver both describe interesting  work in building effective sound worlds for computing environments; and Chris Hayward's "Listening to the Earth Sing"  shows how effective simple manipulation of recorded field data can be.

Overall the volume is a good representation of what's happening (good and bad) in the emerging field of auditory display and will be of interest to many readers of CMJ.

    √≥Tim Perkis