Herman Miller Unveils Sonare Brand

May 23, 2005
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ZEELAND — Herman Miller Inc. has released details of the first product launch from its new sound management brand, Sonare Technologies. Designed to meet the growing confidentiality needs of today’s business environment, Babble is a first-of-its-kind desktop device that makes a user’s voice unintelligible.

“This technology focuses on the problem of privacy in the office environment,” said Bill DeKruif, president of Herman Miller’s sound management venture. “The industry’s single largest complaint is privacy — we wanted to address that.”

Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker announced the development of the Sonare brand during the company’s third quarter conference call on March 17.

“Most people in the sound business are in for aesthetics, making things sound better, or to manage disturbances,” he said. “This is about privacy. How do I keep my conversations from being overheard by someone else?”

Human resources, health care and finance are a few on a long list of industries for which regulatory pressures, liability concerns and proprietary strategies are making confidentiality increasingly important, DeKruif said.

“Paper shredder sales are taking off; they can’t make enough of them,” he said. “But there wasn’t anything comparable for the voice.”

Herman Miller first attacked these concerns three years ago with Quiet Technology. Created in partnership with Cambridge Sound Management Inc., Quiet Technology products emit a patented, direct-field sound spectrum that matches the frequencies of the human voice.

This practice, often called “pink noise,” can mask conversations beyond 12 to 16 feet away, dropping conversations of that distance to 20 percent intelligibility.

The Herman Miller white paper on the subject, “Sound Masking in the Office,” noted that while people get used to office noises to the point where their brains “tune out” the distractions, it is nearly impossible to disregard intelligible human speech.

Without floor-to-ceiling walls, the acoustics of the office are such that in order to provide confidential privacy, defined by he American Society for Testing Materials as 5 percent speech intelligibility, workers must be separated by at least 12 feet. In some environments, the human voice can be understood 50 feet away.

Sound masking products have been on the market for decade, but to date all have focused on limiting distraction rather than providing confidential privacy.

Because of the all but uniform failure of open office systems to reach confidential privacy, the ASTM recently amended its definition of privacy to include a new category: conversational privacy or normal privacy, defined as 5 percent to 20 percent intelligibility.

Babble is the first sound management device to attain complete unintelligibility.

Babble is a sleek desktop device that plugs into a user’s telephone. The accompanying speakers can be moved closer or further away from the user depending on the office layout. If positioned on the desktop, the system creates a three- to four-foot bubble of privacy at normal volume.

Babble functions by rearranging the phonemes in the user’s voice and transmitting, in real time, several versions of the user’s voice. Outside of the protected workspace, the conversation is lost amid what sounds like a small crowd.

When in use, an indicator on the top of the unit flashes blue. If the conversation becomes too loud for the Babble to mask, the light turns amber.

“It’s really counterintuitive. We’re actually adding sound to the environment instead of making it more quiet,” DeKruif said. “But we are providing something that people are asking for: confidentiality.”

Babble was developed through a collaboration between the Herman Miller Creative Office and California-based Applied Minds Inc., the technology’s patent holder. It was first commercialized six months ago, and alpha tested by a large Herman Miller customer in the apparel industry.

Twenty-five users representing human resources, legal and marketing roles each received a unit, DeKruif said.

“We were pretty happy with the results,” he said. “Early adopters were people in all groups that used confidential information. There was a novelty to it that wore off after about four days, then people realized it was a business tool.”

The test was most successful with individuals that worked with confidential information, were already making some effort to conceal their conversations — such as a private room or whispering — and those comfortable with new technology.

“The lawyers were already accustomed to protecting information, they didn’t necessarily need Babble for each other, but wanted it for their areas,” DeKruif said. “Others, like human resources, were working with information they didn’t want anyone to hear.”

During the test, there were fears that the Babble effect might be as distracting to coworkers as regular speech.

“In many cases, people preferred the sound of Babble to masking systems,” he said. “They were more comfortable listening to human voices.”

Babble will officially launch at NeoCon 2005 in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart in June. While it will not reach market until July, select customers have already been shown the product, and pre-orders have been strong. It will be offered at a retail price of $395.

Sonare is based in Chicago; its products will be manufactured in Wisconsin

DeKruif indicated that Sonare is developing a Babble model to be used for face-to-face conversations and a HIPPA specific model.

“The telephone conversation was the most difficult and requested privacy issue,” DeKruif said. “We wanted to tackle that one first.”

Sonare marks the first product to emerge from the Creative Office, the company’s four-year-old research and design engine.

“This is the very outcome we wanted to create with the development of the Creative Office,” said Mark Schurman, Herman Miller’s director of corporate communications.      

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