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 says.

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 microphone).

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 conversation.

“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.

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