Future Mobility: Penny Webb transforms ambient noise into signals or soothing sounds

In the lead-up to each issue, Frame challenges emerging designers to answer a topical question with a future-forward concept. For the Future Mobility Challenge in Frame 118, Penny Webb dreams up a sonically responsive material that reshapes car acoustics.

Penny Webb’s portfolio explores the interaction between humans and technology.

You’ve decided to focus on the ‘hear’ rather than the ‘now’ of future transport . . .
Yes. As engines improve and technologies such as maglev [magnetic levitation] become a reality, quieter landscapes form a foreseeable future. The thinking behind car acoustics needs to be changed. Simply engineering an electric car to sound like a car with a traditional engine isn’t the right way to go.

What do you propose?
A holistic approach to transport design, in which pedestrians are considered as much a part of the experience as drivers are.  

What’s the next step?
We need to create transformable acoustic materials that react to their surroundings yet make as little impact as possible. I’m thinking of a tunable environment in which ambient sound is lowered while directed sound is emitted when necessary.  

How would you describe ‘transformable acoustic materials’?
Materials engineering has reached the level of microscale, and currently in development is a future generation of smart materials with responsive and transformative properties, which are triggered by environmental changes such as moisture, temperature and strain. With the evolution of materials engineering, environmental behaviours like sound waves will soon provide enough stimuli to produce a sonically responsive material with filtering qualities that can adapt its configuration to augment sonic space. For example, the frequency of a drill could stimulate a molecular change in a surface membrane to block out unwanted noises from the outside.

The transformable acoustic material that Penny Webb envisions blocks out ambient sounds for car users, while alerting pedestrians when necessary.

How does this principle apply to your concept?
Directed sound can alert pedestrians when necessary, while car passengers can escape into a sonic sphere – a silent retreat for contemplation, concentration and relaxation. Activities such as feeding a child, reading a book and having a nap are also facilitated inside the sonic sphere.  

How will the tunable environment affect pedestrians outside the car?
It’s hard to describe a sound through words, and I’m lacking in onomatopoeia. But the sounds I imagine will alert pedestrians in a way that provides the right information in specific contexts. For example, ambient sound in a busy street might be tuned to a calmer tone for pedestrians, but when information such as a warning needs to be conveyed, the sound will be directed at pedestrians in a tone sufficient to alert them.


More from this issue

Frame 118

The Sep/Oct issue explores how hotels and restaurants are striving to be local in every aspect. From the food they offer to the plates on which it’s served; to the materials used in the spaces. Local hospitality has never been so global.

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