The Cone of Silence

May 10, 2009

The first of two interesting articles in the latest issue of New  Scientist magazine concerns a recent US patent application, which brings to mind the 1960s TV spoof of the spy genre, Get Smart. (I’ll talk about the second article in a post tomorrow.)  The idea brings to mind the “Cone of Silence” that was a recurring situation in the show:

IN Get Smart, the 1960s TV spy comedy, secret agents wanting a private conversation would deploy the “cone of silence”, a clear plastic contraption lowered over the agents’ heads. It never worked – they couldn’t hear each other, while eavesdroppers could pick up every word. Now a modern cone of silence that we are assured will work is being patented by engineers Joe Paradiso and Yasuhiro Ono of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Basically, the idea behind the patent application is to use a network of microphones and  infrared sensors, located around the walls of the room, to locate persons; and a network servers and small loudspeakers  to generate synthetic background noise, in order to mask conversations from people who are not in close proximity to the person(s) speaking, even in an open-plan office or lunch room:, and even if the parties involved are moving around:

“In increasingly common open-plan offices, the violation of employees’ privacy can often become an issue, as third parties overhear their conversations intentionally or unintentionally,” the inventors say in their patent. Their aim is to relieve people of that concern.

Of course, a similar idea is used in some headphones, to help eliminate annoying background noise.

Implementing the idea would involve a fair amount of infrastructure, for the sensors, the speakers, and the network.  It’s not clear that such an implementation would be materially less expensive than the use of an older privacy technology: walls.

There is also a potential privacy issue involved. The system has to be able to track the location of the conversation participants in order to dynamically generate the correct masking signal.  But that means that it could probably perform a “Big Brother” function, keeping track of where everyone is all day.  And it goes without saying that your conversation could be recorded.

The paper describing the invention is available here; there’s also a discussion thread on Slashdot.

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