Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Innovation in Sound Masking: Toward a Cone of Silence

In "'Cone of Silence' Keeps Conversations Secret" at New Scientist, Paul Marks describes a recent MIT invention of a system that can direct noise toward nearby people to make it difficult to overhear a private conversation. It's a step toward a functioning version of the "Cone of Silence" from Get Smart. The MIT system, however, demands a lot of infrastructure. Many sensors and sound generators are required to do its subtle work. Will it have market potential, given that simple and relatively effective solutions are out there already? One example is the sound masking technology of Logison near Montreal, Canada. They offer more sophistication and control than generic white noise generators, but in a simple and easy to use system. Who will prevail in the long run? The MIT system certainly has the potential to offer more targeted masking, but unless the complex system can be offered in easy-to-install plug-and-play formats, it may never make more than a whisper in the market, though it may become a preferred tool for a few high-end users.

The key to successful innovation is rarely coming up with the highest performance in a product. The real key is providing a product that can be socially adopted - meaning that it positively changes the way people do things, and drives others to adopt it. The social aspect of innovation can never be neglected. This demands attention to industrial design, to ease of use, to convenience, to cost, to service and repair, etc. These factors help drive social adoption. It's not all about bells and whistles. I hope the MIT product will become reality and succeed, but at the moment, I think lower-tech solutions will prevail unless the design and business model aspects for the MIT invention can be pursued to deliver successful social adoption.

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