Transforming body movement into sound
When it comes to microphones and audio, wind noise is usually something to avoid.
Now, Sony is upending that conventional wisdom with a new technology: a bracelet with
three embedded microphones that actually amplify wind noise as sound—not mere "noise."
That innovative bracelet is the cornerstone of the Motion Sonic Project,
an effort that could actualize body movements in groundbreaking way.
Two of the designers behind the project gave us a revealing look at
how they wove the design into a compelling story,
imbuing movement with new meanings.
How did the Motion Sonic Project get to where it is today?
Suzuki (designer) : It all started with an idea from Heesoon Kim, an engineer who came up with the notion of capturing wind noise with wrist-mounted microphones and putting some effects on top of the input to translate body movements into intuitive sound.
Takuma (chief art director) : A group of young engineers got the project going with a lot of energy, working hard to create new experience value. When ideas started to emerge, I got Suzuki on board to help visualize the concepts. For a while, though, we had to take a step back and let the team figure out how to actually turn the ideas into a viable UX.
Suzuki : Our goal was to convert body movements into sound. When we started working out possible approaches, there were almost too many options to choose from: In addition to microphones, we had to test bending sensors, pressure sensors, gyrosensors, and lots of other sensors. It took a while before we could start making out clear solutions—after all, we needed to have actual dancers wear the prototypes to see how they'd function in practice.
Takuma : Devices that make sound when you move your body aren't that uncommon, actually. We decided to change things up by going further than simply having a sensor trigger the output. Our idea was to bring in the element of wind noise and use that input, not just motion-sensor readings, to generate sound. When we got around to focusing on the wind component, the device concept started to materialize.
For the engineers, the biggest thing was to make sure that the system would turn great kinetics—like the sharp, agile movements of professional dancers and athletes—into great sounds. That gave the Motion Sonic Project a little bit of a different personality from what we normally do: While end user-friendliness normally gets top priority, we were after a higher sense of sophistication.
Suzuki : We started out with a minimal setup, trying to see how we could capture wind noise from different directions with just one microphone, but we eventually realized that using multiple microphones would give us more accurate, nuanced input. After a battery of trial runs, we finally found the optimal microphone arrangement for obtaining the maximum amount of wind noise without affecting the user's performance.
Tell us about the design process. What did you pay special attention to? What were the challenges?
Suzuki : Once we'd settled on using three microphones, we focused on giving the design a good balance. The microphones needed to look different from conventional microphones, but we wanted to keep the overall look as simple as possible and just foreground the basic elements.
Takuma : Wind noise isn't normally something you want a microphone to pick up. The Motion Sonic Project turns that conventional idea on its head: We didn't just want the microphones to capture wind noise; we wanted them to amplify it. To get a configuration that would boost sensitivity to wind noise, we put slits in the microphones and tried different arrangements until we arrived at the end result.
The design sketch that Suzuki came up with had a smattering of rough lines for where the bracelet belt would go—but the microphone renderings were clear, prominent features. The look had a real "prototype" vibe to it, an experimental aura that evoked the sense of possibility. When I saw it, I knew that we had what we'd been looking for.
Suzuki : The response we saw at SXSW2017 was incredible—people have already started calling in, asking when they'll be able to get their own devices.
Takuma : I get the feeling that the personal audio of the future is going to be moving away from the traditional, passive mode of listening to music in your room and letting the sounds come to you. I think we're going to see a shift toward active audio, with people making the experience themselves—and the Motion Sonic Project could be a driver for that momentum.
Did the Motion Sonic Project give you any new insight into the roles that design can play?
Suzuki : Definitely. For one thing, the experience showed me that designers are going to be able to define more and more goals ourselves. If engineers and business management teams ever run into roadblocks in a given project, designers can come in, lay out some concrete UX ideas, get the visualization process going, and help build a team-wide consensus. Designers might find themselves in the driver's seat, I guess you could say, more than they have in the past.
Takuma : Creating optimal designs is relatively simple if you're dealing with a pre-existing category like headphones or speakers: You can just use feedback from the previous model to make the necessary improvements for the next release. With products in new, groundbreaking categories, though, you don't have the benefit of past experience. That's why it was so helpful to get feedback on our Motion Sonic Project prototype at TOKYO DESIGN WEEK and SXSW. Opportunities for empathetic prototyping—showcasing unfinished ideas to create productive dialogue—don't come along very often.
Pushing ahead with the Motion Sonic Project, we'll be unlocking more and more potential every step of the way. Personally, I'd love to see our inspirations play into other audio products. As designers, it's our mission to give shape to whatever the future demands—and that future can be a complex, mystifying context. The process of designing a prototype, drawing the curtain back on what we've developed, and then gathering input from the outside world gives us opportunities to glean important hints as to what the future might hold. From my perspective, designers have to keep incorporating that valuable input into their creative pursuits.