IoT in the office: Plantronics service blocks annoying noises

Plantronics introduces another type of IoT product, Habitat Soundscaping, adaptive software that attacks the noise in open offices

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The Internet of Things (IoT) is creating interesting, new business opportunities. This week, Plantronics announced a new noise-as-a-service portfolio called Habitat Soundscaping. The solution set is designed to counteract the productivity-killing side effects of open offices.

Habitat Soundscaping sounds a bit crazy, so let’s hear them out.

Plantronics has been around since the early 1960s when it launched lightweight aviation headsets. Its business opportunities expanded from pilots to include astronauts, call center agents, knowledge workers and mobile professionals. Headsets evolved from big clunky proprietary interfaces through 2.5 and 3.5 mm jacks to USB to Bluetooth.

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Audio technologies have changed even more. There have been huge improvements in microphones and noise reduction. Today, many Plantronics products feature active noise-cancellation, which means there are a few noise specialists working there.

Plantronics separately embraced, like so many other firms, open office floor plans. This is a “collaborative” environment with few walls. The theory driving open floor plans suggests that placing knowledge workers in close proximity can facilitate collaboration and idea sharing. Open floor plans are also denser, which coincidentally reduces costs.

Open offices: Living the dream—or nightmare?

Plantronics, like many other firms, found that open offices can promote collaboration, but they are more likely to contribute to lost productivity, decreased morale, increased absenteeism and turnover. Uncontrolled noise wipes out all the potential benefits of open offices. Modern employees are learning what librarians have known for years: Shhh!

Today’s offices are simultaneously quieter and noisier than before. They are quieter because windows are closed, HVAC systems are more efficient, typewriters are gone and textual communications (email and messaging) are replacing phone calls. The other side of the coin is the sounds that remain stand out and disrupt. A single conversation, a laugh, various notifications, music, whatever—we hear it all.

Denser environments mean more sounds. Open floor plans are generally poor at blocking or absorbing sounds because the walls are gone and contemporary offices favor non-absorbing materials such as glass, wood and metal.

Rather than revert to walls and offices, Plantronics’ sound engineers explored alternatives. The answer they found was sound-masking properties of white noise. When we hear someone talking, it’s hard not to listen, but indistinguishable sounds are easier to ignore and they mask other sounds.

Biophilia

Plantronics found that white noise helped some, but not all. It had to be at the right level, and some sounds were better than others. The term "biophilia" means "love of life or living systems." The theory goes that humans respond well to nature. Biophilic science shows that natural light, plants, visuals and sounds improve our ability to concentrate. Sounds of nature such as a waterfall or creek are a particularly effective at masking sounds.

Plantronics’ new Habitat Soundscaping line provides natural sights and sounds such in-office waterfalls, LCD-powered skylights and windows, and sounds of water. Plantronics uses biomimicry to get us back to our naturally productive state.

Indoor water treatments are not particularly new. What is new is the back-end service for intelligence and analytics. Plantronics automatically adjusts the environment as appropriate. For example, waterfalls need to get louder to absorb midday cacophony.

The connected service automates management of the open office environment. It adjusts the conditions for different sound levels and schedules. There’s tremendous potential for ongoing localization improvements as the service matures; for example, ensuring LCD windows and skylights darken appropriately with time-of-day and weather patterns.

Will it work? It’s too early to tell, but it certainly has me interested. Background noise is tricky. I get very frustrated when someone near me talks on their phone. Television and music also tend to commandeer my mind. But it’s equally frustrating when it’s so quiet I can hear things I shouldn’t. A back-end, intelligent service to drown out distracting noises is so crazy that it just might work.

IoT creates opportunities

As interesting as biophilic science is, what’s more interesting is how IoT is creating opportunities. Plantronics, a manufacturing company, is using its intellectual property to create a service that previously did not exist. Waterfalls may seem unrelated to headsets, but both are tools that manage noise and improve productivity.

Will Habitat Soundscaping ever become a bigger business to Plantronics than headsets? Who knows? But the company used the solution to solve its own problem, and there's an awful lot of open floorplans out there. 

The Habitat Soundscaping service is now available in the U.S.,
the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and France.