The Big Idea: Set Phasers to Silence





Have you ever been in a meeting, a party, or the movies and there is someone—maybe a friend, a colleague, or a complete stranger—who just doesn’t stop talking? You can politely (or not) ask them to quiet down, but there is no stopping this individual from sharing their thoughts, moist of them not really asked for. What about family gatherings? You could be visiting relatives for Thanksgiving, and there could be a particular relative that is just talking way, way too much. Religion. Politics. Old family affairs. Whatever the awkward, inappropriate topic matter, there is that one relative that will just not let it go. Wouldn’t you like to just be able to point a device at them and they just wouldn’t be able to talk? A press of a button, and blessed silence.

With enough time to save up for the upcoming holiday seasons, two Japanese researchers recently introduced a prototype for a device that they call a SpeechJammer that can literally “jam” someone’s voice — effectively stopping them from talking. This prototype, launched in 2012, is seen in this video where the device is seen in action.

The design of the device is deceptively simple. It consists of a direction-sensitive microphone which you point at the person. And there is also a direction-sensitive speaker. This is how it works: It plays the person’s voice back to them at a slight delay. The SpeachJammer turns out if you hear your voice replayed back to you at that slight delay—around 200 milliseconds—you can’t speak. So as the person is talking their voice is directed right back to them.

Japanese researchers behind the SpeechJammer looked to medical devices used to help people with speech problems. This delayed auditory feedback, or DAF, devices have been used to help stutterers for decades. If a stutterer hears his own voice with a slight delay, stuttering often improves. However if you use DAF to a non-stutterer he will start stuttering — and the effect is more pronounced if the delay is longer. Seeing the results of the SpeechJammer on those not suffering a speech impediment, they utilized DAF to develop a device that can remotely jam someone’s speech whether they want it or not. Being at a distance the person doesn’t even know what has hit them.

Beach, woman, driftwood, sand, ocean, sitting, silence, calm, bay, blue, evening, aloneAs you can see, this video—as well as the videos that the SpeechJammer inspired—was posted in 2012. Why are we talking about this now? This device in its innovation and execution remains quite an ingenious way to help someone suffering from speech impediments. Such a simple idea, yielding astounding results. The SpeechJammer inspired developers to create an app that offers similar results to the 2012 prototype, your smartphone or mobile device used as the delivery mechanism.  So if you are bothered by someone speaking at a meeting, you could secretly point the jammer at them and they wouldn’t be able to talk.

But there are problems with the device and its design. The SpeechJammer is not necessarily stealth in its build. It looks about as inconspicuous as a police officer’s RADAR gun, so if you are sitting in a lecture and trying to throw someone off their prepared material, you’re facing a challenge in doing it without being caught, especially if the lights in the lecture room are up. There is the app, but the app only works if you have headphones connected to your smart device. That is not necessarily an efficient way to try and trip up someone by saying “Wear these noise-cancelling headphones while you talk. This should be fine.” So the SpeechJammer is still a prototype. Very much a prototype. There could be a real demand for this device, sure, especially around the holidays; but the actual practicality of the device is still science fiction.

Besides, SpeechJammers in the classrooms? That is a bridge too far.



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratford University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.