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A Creepy Mute Button for the Real World

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Joe Paradiso and Yasuhiro Ono of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have just patented a system for a roving cone of silence, so that you can walk around your office building without anyone ever eavesdropping on you.

The inventors are trying to fix a common problem in open-plan offices: the sound of conversations that carry across the room, making your every phone call into fodder for other people’s gossip sessions. So they devised a sound-damping sensor, comprised of an infra-red motion-detector, a speaker and a microphone. These would be scattered around the walls of an office. You can then activate your personal mute button from your computer. The system locks onto you, identifies anyone close enough to eavesdrop, and hits them with a murmur of white noise so they can’t hear you.

Of course, the new invention isn’t alone. In-office sound masking systems have become popular recently: There’s already the Babble and the Accumask, both of which shroud voices by mixing them with randomized noise. But Paradiso and Ono’s invention is the only one that has the potential to silence anyone in an office on demand with a single system, while traveling with them as they wander around the office. The downside is that this system requires lots of infrastructure, not to mention the creepiness of having your moves watched by a computer that tags you as a nosey eavesdropper. Do you think the benefits of privacy outweigh the creepy factor? 

Related: No Joke: These Guys Really Do Work Out of a Cardboard Box
Related: The Privacy Arms Race Issue 84 | July 2004

[Via New Scientist; image by Adactio] CK