Easter Sunday morning and the three Sundays since, I’ve sheltered at home on my sofa between my wife and adult son, both Catholics, to listen to Holy Mass livecast from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. I play the sound through stereo speakers carefully arranged to create a 3D audio image behind the laptop screen. Then I closed my eyes and pretended I’m right there in the cathedral, hearing Monsignor Ritchie and Cardinal Dolan.
After a few minutes after getting used to that new sonic space, for a few seconds at a time, I felt a visceral sense of immediacy. High-quality livecast stereo creates an acoustic “tunnel” connecting the sound fingerprint of one breathing human being, say the priest, to the ears and possibly the soul of another. By ignoring the laptop screen and instead focusing my full attention on the audio sound image, my nervous system felt teleported into the presence of voices, incantation, songs, bells and cavernous echoes.
In my head I named the experience “spiritual communion,” but minutes later I discovered spiritual communion is an official Catholic term. So let’s just call my “being there” experience audio telepresence. In this case, a one-way telepresence experience listening to mass. Then, a few days later, two-way telepresence stereo phone calls. The good news is, audio telepresence is both cheaper and better than video telepresence. You can even try it at home.
“Video telepresence” is a fancy name for simulating meetings by putting high-definition screens around a table. In Silicon Valley, a single such room costs about the same per hour as a novice attorney. Sitting among high-definition screens obviously provides more detail than a laptop ever could, so it looks far better to the eye. Better for your brain’s sense-making, the audio speaker for each attendee is placed with the screen, so the sound and image come from the same place.
But by the exacting standards of the nervous system, best measured in micrometers and microseconds, even the fanciest screens are abysmal approximations of live three-dimensional life. A 10-megapixel screen is still dozens-fold too flickering, flat, shiny, grainy, lagged and sonically scrambled to pass for real to your real brain.
No visually-based teleconference, not even the very best teleconference using augmented reality, can signal the real presence of a fellow nervous system. The pixelated prop might fool your conscious eye, but not your unconscious biorhythms. Those subtle signals can’t synchronize or “connect” as well with someone else through pixels as in real life. Screen-based attempts at connection only drive the deep sensory conflict deeper into the unconscious, as virtual reality also does, which makes people sick. New experiments back this up. Participants in a study of emotion-reading given sound, video or both proved to read emotions best using only sound, without video.
Many people older than 40 remember feeling deep audio connections through traditional copper telephones wires, whose analog acoustic properties play far better with our analog nervous systems than does anything digital. A typical teen or even adult could spend hours in a dark room, staring at the ceiling with a phone to the ear, trading secrets. Back then, jazz musicians “jammed” together over the phone. Those phones actually connected people on the nervous-system level, so they enjoyed telephone calls more, unlike people who grew up with mobile phones. That’s the kind of connection I want to revive via acoustic telepresence.
Escape from Quarantine
Acoustic telepresence connects you not just with a person but with a place. Through the magic of stereo, using two independent sound channels, your ears can hear the locations of sounds, left through right, near through far. So a stereo transmission of real sounds from a real place, such as an echoing cathedral, can sound to your ears and skin as if you’re in that place, right where the microphones are.
The key to success at acoustic teleportation, as with enjoyment of theater, is the willing suspension of disbelief. You have to want to feel you’re there, to will it. To get the nearly spiritual result of being out of body, you need to start with a nearly spiritual commitment to use the infamous placebo effect to your own full advantage. Believe it works, and it will.
By willfully feeling a different reality, you will also have exercised autonomy over your most important “muscle,” your attentional system itself. Deliberate attention-control during stress helps defuse it, as with the hugely successful eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. In that sense, teleporting yourself through acoustic telepresence counts as an escape from quarantine.
The experience is even better used as a two-way telephone. If each of you has a stereo microphone (into the computer’s USB jack) and speakers or headphones (out of the headphone jack), you have the ingredients for a two-way stereo conversation (via any videoconferencing platform which supports stereo, such as Zoom — check your settings). The trick is that after saying pleasantries, you don’t use the video, only the audio. You close your eyes and try to feel the other person speaking right there in front you and let the other person know that’s your plan.
Meanwhile, they might look at you while speaking, just to see your nods of recognition and understanding. That listen-versus-view pairing works way better than both people watching the screen, I promise. Last Friday, after three consecutive hours of shared acoustic telepresence, I felt not fatigued as with Zoom, but energized. Just talking, eyes closed, is way more relaxing than preening at a screen.
Acoustic telepresence requires both a good attitude and good hardware. I’ve fussed on this project for months, so here’s how I set up my rig. You probably won’t have all the pieces, but maybe enough to experiment yourself. First, stereo sound departs the laptop via a 3.5mm plug into the headphone jack and goes into a microtime-amplifier circuit (US patent 7,564,982), because sudden microtime differences, such as twig snaps, provide the best cues to sound location.
That cleaned-up audio signal then drives the aux input of a vintage stereo amplifier (non-digital, circa 1975), because digitization of any kind destroys microtime signals. The amplifier’s output enters copper wires, not microtime-destroying Bluetooth. Those wires drive two 1970’s walnut cabinet speakers, because speakers, unlike headphones, provide a coherent sound field for the entire body.
The tech specs of these particular speakers (frequency, linearity and phase) presumably mean they reproduce their inputs accurately. The speakers are placed close together, each aimed slightly inward to directly face the center of the sofa because the best microtime signals come along the speaker cone’s line of sight, where the sound wavefront is distorted the least. As a physicist, I believe this entire acoustic arrangement, whether driven by a laptop computer or by a vinyl LP record player, provides the best “phantom sound image” available. As a human, with my eyes closed, I believe it sounds real.
Besides hardware, here are a few neuromechanical tricks to help improve your experience. At first, by all means, watch the video to get a sense of the person and place before diving into acoustic immersion. Then, satisfied by the screen, close your eyes aim your attention at the source of sound itself. Try to hear the speaker as if in front of you, and the sounds as all around you. Try rebalancing your spine, such as by slightly lifting your chin or leaning forward, because your entire front body is sensitive to sound and works best when open and engaged. As you align, you may feel the sound image “pop” suddenly into presence.
Just months ago, people could connect instinctively, just by being there. Now, in lockdown with only online filaments, you have to try hard to feel connected to any person or event. But with good audio, it’s still possible and feels like an amazing accomplishment when it works. Now, more than ever, we need interpersonal connections and accomplishments to remind ourselves we’re human.
*[Big tech has done an excellent job telling us about itself. This column, dubbed Tech Turncoat Truths, or 3T, goes beyond the hype, exploring how digital technology affects human minds and bodies. The picture isn’t pretty, but we don’t need pretty pictures. We need to see the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.