Protecting What’s Said at the Pharmacy and Doctor’s Office

CITEC researchers developing  solution for confidential conversations

Sensitive topics are discussed at the bank counter, or at the doctor’s office or pharmacy, and most of these conversations take place within earshot of the next customer or patient standing in line. At companies and offices with open floor plans, how can what is said be protected from others hearing it? A technical solution for this is being developed by researchers at the Cluster of Excellence CITEC, together with employees from the Responsive Acoustics company in Hamburg. The Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy) is funding the “Sound Refiner” project for a period of two years.

In consultation meetings in offices with open floor plans, conversations are often problematic with regard to privacy. “We currently do not have a cost-effective, easy-to-implement, and most importantly, a reliable solution that is able to protect private conversations from being overheard in closely confined spaces. The solution itself should also not contribute additional noise disturbance,” says Dr. Thomas Hermann of the Cluster of Excellence CITEC, who heads the “Ambient Intelligence” research group.

In the project, Hermann and representatives from Responsive Acoustics (ReAct), a company in Hamburg, are working to develop a prototype for a technical system that ensures discretion in speaking situations. “Our approach is to add a specially modified sound to the original signal (the conversation at the desk or counter), which is played over the loudspeakers,” says Thomas Hermann. This is designed to alter perception of the original sound.

“The audio signals for this are processed in real time, and are played in the desired areas. The listeners only notice a change in the original sound, instead of additional noise generated to mask the conversation. Outside of the protected area, the conversation is still heard, but it is no longer understood,” says Patrick Langeslag, Managing Director of Responsive Acoustics.

At CITEC, Dr. Thomas Hermann conducts research on intelligent environments.“Imagine the Sound Refiner in a pharmacy,” says Hermann. “At every counter, the frequencies and amplitudes of the conversations are measured. From this data, a distorting signal is reproduced in real time and played over the loudspeakers in the rest of the store. In this way, the customers standing outside of the zone of speech discretion will no longer be able to follow the conversation.”

The project is divided between both partners, and the focus for CITEC is on the development of the speech discretion algorithm. Responsive Acoustics is analyzing how the new method can be turned into a product. “At the end of the project, the goal is to have a marketable product that allows for the greatest possible discretion to be achieved, even in consultative conversations that take place at businesses and shops with open-floor plans.”

The “Sound Refiner” project is being funded through the end of July 2020 by the Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy).

Dr. Thomas Hermann, Bielefeld University
Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) 
Telephone: 0521 106-12140