Binaudios. They’re like a prop out of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Giant binoculars that hook up to your ears, making you capable of hearing so well that you can listen to sounds half a mile away, or even a century into the past.
Designed by Dominic Wilcox and James Rutherford, there’s but a single pair of binaudios in existence today, installed at England's Sage Gateshead music center. They look out over the river Tyne to spy on the sounds of Newcastle.
A user walks up to the installation. He places a pair of headphones over his ears. And as he pans the binoculars across the city, sounds fade in and out of his ears, in stereo. He might hear a basketball game in the park, people haggling at a local market, or even the sound of a ship being built on the dock in the 1970s.
Not to spoil the fun, but the binaudios are simply playing prerecorded sounds of the city—about 50 locations collected by Wilcox and supplemented with archival audio dating back to 1928, when King George V made a speech to commemorate the then-new Tyne Bridge.
"I've always been interested in the subject of sound as something that conjures imagery in our minds and memories of places once visited," Wilcox tells Co.Design. "For a moment, when listening to sounds of distant places, our thoughts can be transported far away."
The absurd spectacle of the binaudios themselves enables this sensation. They imply the possibility of wonder and magic.
"What was important in this project was that the physical object and the user's interaction with it are the main focal point. The technology side of things is hidden away," Wilcox explains. "I only use technology in my work when necessary, it's not a driver of my ideas but it can help turn seemingly impossible ideas into a perceived reality, such as listening through a window, over a river and far away."
Wilcox hopes that this is but the first pair of many sets of binaudios placed in tourist destinations around the world. If you’re interested in getting a pair of your own, you can contact him through his site.