Sean Thornton Blog Series: The Smart Home Audio Experience

Sean Thornton Blog Series: The Smart Home Audio Experience

This is the first installment in guest blogger Sean Thornton’s series on sound design and the audio user experience.

Home is where the heart is, but a smart home is where all the exciting emerging tech is. If the ubiquity of Alexa and other VUIs are any indication, audiophiles may have a whole new world of sound to look forward to.

The age of smart devices has brought along a myriad of innovation in home appliance and automation technology. From smart refrigerators and thermostats to voice-controlled washing machines and kitchen sinks, these devices are designed to bring convenience and connectivity to our sacred spaces and beyond. The internet of things is ensuring that control over these experiences becomes more accessible and integrated every day.

“Alexa, what will the future sound like?”

Imagine arriving home and simply saying “hello” to unlock your door. Voice recognition software will then inform the hub of your smart home to cater to your user preferences: your voice-assistant welcomes you by name, the lights change to your preferred brightness, the tea kettle starts to boil, your favorite tea begins to steep, and the perfect after-work playlist begins streaming through the house (at just the right volume). This level of personalization is more real now than ever, and thus the opportunity to create our dream sound environments presents itself dutifully.

Music, sound ambiance and even open-air noise cancellation within a room (wouldn’t it be nice to tune out the drone of traffic and construction without wearing headphones in your own living room?) might soon be controllable via a single, connected voice experience or app. This would mean that you could enter any room of your house and instantiate the perfect sound environment for that precise moment.

As your head hits the pillow, ask your voice assistant to play the sound of rain to transform an ordinary nap into a restful vacation with an audio augmented reality (AR) experience. Turn your bathroom into a spa by saying something like, “Okay, Google, time for some R&R,” or “Hey, Siri, I’m back from the gym,” as you relax to a calming playlist in a perfectly heated shower. Having guests? Launch a party playlist that automatically adjusts the volume depending on the number of guests or the level of ambient noise and conversation. No quiet lulls; no shouting over each other.

Sound Hierarchy

We’re taking in more information and sensory input than ever before, and a smart home with a well-crafted audio user experience represents the opportunity to selectively limit what we take in; to strip down auditory feedback to only what we need (or want) via a hierarchy of sound. If we’ve learned anything from visual design, negative space can be just as powerful as a colorful focal point. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the ability to set all kitchen appliances to a “Do Not Disturb” mode with one word as you wrap up the end of a particularly suspenseful movie? Maybe you prefer a more gradual alarm ringtone to harsh digital beeps or skeuomorphic bells, so you set your smart devices to work together in harmony and gently wake you from your slumber. Proximity-based alerts can offer a solution to microwaves beeping at full volume in your ear while you pour a cup of coffee.

For instance, if you’re nearby, the microwave can quietly inform you that a task has been completed. Past everyone’s bedtime? You can receive a notification on your phone without waking up the neighborhood. Isn’t it time our products were more considerate to our ears?

Now Hear This

At a glance, quality of life improvements like these may seem minimal or even superfluous, but what they represent under the hood is what’s most important: the opportunity for more immersion in the things that matter. The ability to effortlessly configure sound environments for ourselves can enhance desired emotion and create a sense of empowerment through the purposeful inclusion of music or removal of unnecessary sound.

If the basis of making our homes smarter is to create more comfortable, personalized spaces and to make everyday tasks easier, then sound plays an important role in this conversation. Let’s be thoughtful and reimagine what our homes should sound like by orchestrating the cacophony of buzzing and beeping into a symphony of useful information.

– Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a composer and sound designer with extensive experience crafting story-driven sound for apps, brands and games. He is currently the creative director at Audio UX, a NYC agency disrupting the audio branding industry. Audio UX (AUX) designs and deploys impactful, holistic audio experiences for brands – assessing where and how users interact with sound to ensure audio is meaningful, consistent and never in the way.


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