The world is a noisy place – certainly noisier than it was just a few years ago, according to experts in the field (http://tinyurl.com/38kqv3r). Cars, trains, planes, and the constant whirr of air-conditioners, fans, computers, and the myriad noise-making gadgets that we all have today, from iPods to TV sets, are the culprits – as is the shouting we have to do to make ourselves heard over the noise!
All that noise – that unwanted sound we’re all forced to tolerate – is probably unhealthy for us, doctors say. But even if it weren’t, noise is – well, noisy. And noisy gets annoying very fast. Noise interferes with your train of thought, your sleep, your ability to hold a conversation on the phone, and with many other day-today tasks.
Worst of all though, as far as the business world is concerned, excess
noise is a real drag on business productivity, as attendees of audio and
video conferences will attest, as they strain to hear what the person
on the other side of the microphone is saying. As a result, a major
industry has sprung up in recent years, aimed at curbing the worst
excesses of noise interference – and many of the latest developments in
the field are on display this week in Tel Aviv, at the 12th
International Workshop on Acoustic Echo and Noise Control (IWAENC).
Taking place every two years since 1989, when the first one was held in
Berlin, IWAENC (http://tinyurl.com/372tk2r) has become the place to be
for researchers dealing with all aspects of acoustic signal enhancement
and noise suppression.
And the fact that the show is taking place in Israel is a sign of how
advanced Israel is in research and development in the area, says
Professor Sharon Gannot, Bar-Ilan University’s premier researcher in the
area of noise control and chairman of the conference, along with
Professor Israel Cohen of the Technion.
“IWAENC is the premier event for noise control research and is attended
by researchers from countries around the world – and they only choose
countries that have a lot to offer in the field. And Israel has been one
of the greatest contributors to knowledge in noise control,” he said.
Those ideas have already been put to good use by Israeli startups in
this growing field, and the exciting developments that will be unveiled
at this year’s conference will no doubt follow the same pattern, he
The program schedule for IWAENC (being held at the Sheraton Tel Aviv,
and organized by Israeli convention producers Ortra), seems about as
theoretic/academic (dare I say “geeky?”) as you can get, featuring
lectures and workshops with titles like “De-Noising of Acoustic
Breathing Signals” and “Complementary N-Band IIR Filterbank Based on 2-
Band Complementary Filters.” But it’s just those kind of presentations,
representing the cream of research in the noise control field, that
leads to the commercial products that have already put several Israeli
startups on the map, and will undoubtedly do so for others, says Gannot.
“Among the innovations we will be discussing will be new algorithms to
remove noise from video and audio conferencing sessions, ensuring that
the person who is doing the speaking is the one listeners on the other
side get to hear,” says Gannot. “Besides the background office noise,
conferencing is often an audio free-for-all, with the loudest person the
one heard on the other side.”
Other technologies to improve video and audio conferencing include
echo-cancellation (often a problem when you are speaking directly into a
Besides conferencing, researchers will discuss improvements to devices
like hearing aids. “Users of the new, sophisticated hearing aids
sometimes have difficulty telling where the person they are hearing is
located,” says Gannot. In a one-on-one conversation, visual cues would
be enough to enable the listener to know who s/he’s speaking with – but
in a group setting, the sensitivity of the devices sometimes prevents
users from determining the origin of the desired “noise” – the
“Inserting the algorithms that do this work in a cellphone or Polycom
conferencing device is relatively easy, since the improvements are
software based,” says Gannot.
“The trick is getting the technology right, and that requires a high
level of mathematics – the more advanced the math, the more advanced the
algorithms, and the greater impact of the technology.”
Israeli companies, meanwhile, have been capitalizing on the research
being done at Bar-Ilan (which, Gannot says, has one of the most advanced
labs in the field anywhere) and in other places. Israeli startup
Silentium (www.silentium.com), for example, developed several years ago a
system that incorporates both passive (barriers, foam etc.) and active
(electronic “anti-noise” signals) that keep all manner of electronic and
industrial equipment seen, and barely heard.
Silentium is a sponsor of the conference, as is former startup (and now
“big boy”) Audiocodes (www.audiocodes.com), which has incorporated noise
control and acoustic enhancement in a whole slew of its products.
Unlike other universities, Gannot says his department does not sponsor
an incubator for a commercial project stemming from the department’s
research – yet. That could change someday, he says – but for now, he is
satisfied helping to solve the world’s noise problems through his
research. “Our mandate is to keep improving things, and we are
definitely moving in the right direction,” he says.