Miller Shows How To Cut Chatter

August 15, 2003
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HOLLAND — Peter Phillips likens it to turning on a fan at night to help you sleep, the steady humming of the motor blocking out any other noise that disturbs you.

In the case of the new device that Herman Miller Inc. began offering with a popular office system this spring, the idea is to use ambient noise to block out conversations in the office that interrupt your concentration and cause distractions.

The device, known as the Quiet Technology sound-masking system, is designed to enable office workers to better focus on the task at hand, resulting in increased productivity and job satisfaction as well as reduced stress in the workplace.

"It really blends the sound," said Phillips, product manager for Quiet Technology.

Developed by Cambridge Sound Management Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based acoustics engineering and design firm, the Quiet Technology device emits a sound spectrum that matches the frequencies of the human voice. The result is that speech more than 12 to 16 feet away becomes unintelligible.

Since the brain tends to tune out voices that are unintelligible, the device effectively blocks a conversation across the room from interrupting others.

Herman Miller began offering Quiet Technology this summer as an aftermarket and original equipment feature on the Resolve office system and plans to offer it in the near future on the EthoSpace and Action Office panel systems, Phillips said.

In the Resolve Office system, Quiet Technology units are small speakers at the tops of in architectural and utility posts.

While sound-masking technology is some 30 years old, Quiet Technology takes a leap forward by targeting human speech.

Phillips said it's a patented, low-decibel sound that is not distracting and is adjustable to four volume levels with an infrared remote control. The device also integrates easily into the office systems that create workstations and divide space in large open-office settings.

Phillips said that makes Quiet Technology much more adaptable and flexible when rearranging or remodeling an office than sound-masking systems that are installed in an office ceiling.

"It starts to take on a lot of the economic attributes, in that it moves, and the same benefits of the furniture itself," he said. "Companies can put it only where it's needed and add to it over time."

Research shows that noise distractions from conversation are one of the biggest annoyances for people working in open-plan offices.

At a cost that Herman Miller equates to 75 cents per square foot of office space — vs. $1 to $2 per square foot for ceiling sound-masking systems — the firm believes it's offering a cost-effective solution to one of the fundamental problems in an open-plan office set-up.

"It's the largest need in open plans today. How do you get fewer distractions and greater productivity?" Phillips said. "It really hit the nail on the head. It speaks to everybody in terms of what they're looking for."

The device is usable in other settings beyond the office.

Herman Miller reports strong interest in the product from health care providers seeking ways to meet new federal patient-privacy regulations. Conversations overheard, for instance, in the emergency room or in semi-private rooms where the only separation between patients is a curtain are a growing concern for hospitals seeking to improve patient privacy.

Herman Miller has a group within its sales force targeting Quiet Technology to the health care market, Phillips said. He expects to see other settings emerge for Quiet Technology, especially as upgrades and new generations of the device are developed.

The company's goal is for Quiet Technology to become a product that has wide, and not niche, market appeal, he said.

"This does kind of represent the initial step in acoustic management for Herman Miller," Phillips said.

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