Enter the maze

The sound of secrets

People talking in groups

Shhh, it's a secret! Who knows who could be listening? There are many occasions when you might want to keep something a secret, from national security to business confidentiality. The problem is that it's easy to start off chatting in an open plan office or canteen about normal stuff and then drift into talking about confidential stuff, which we would rather remain between you and I. That's where, in the future, we might want to raise our 'conversational shields'.

Who is listening?

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab in the US have applied for a patent on a new way to keep secrets in the office. Called a conversational shield, the system works by having your office filled with hidden loudspeakers and sensors, perhaps built into the ducts that carry the power for computers round the office. If you are worried that what you're saying is better kept a secret you can simply call up your sound bubble to conceal your chat.

Building a sound bubble

Software locates all the other people in the office who are within earshot and then plays a masking sound through the loudspeakers closest to them. This masking sound can be a combination of general office background sounds mixed with white noise, a kind of special hiss that's good for covering sounds up but is rather annoying on its own. The researchers found that this bubble of masking sound greatly reduces the ability of any potential eavesdroppers to make out what is being said.

Moving on

Better still, your sound bubble can move with you. As you wander through the office the smart software can ensure that the area of masking sound follows, switching on loudspeakers to frustrate any new eavesdroppers who have moved into range. Your bubble is exactly where it's needed for maximum effect. You could say this software gives a whole new meaning to the idea of following a conversation!