Random thoughts on most things from A. M. Craig.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Hearing is Believing

For those who didn't know, I could be what you'd call an "Idea Man". I have lots of ideas, and I try to write them all down in my red notebook before I forget them. They keep me up at night and fill my dreams. It's the same compulsion that drives me to record my dreams. The mind is churning constantly, producing images, sounds, concepts, systems, and anything else conceivable. Literally. In all that thought, there has to be some coherent, valuable intelligence. So I write.

I'm going to start a new series on this blog about my ideas. I've done this kind of entry at least once before, but in the past I've been concerned about divulging various ideas in fear that they would be stolen. Truth is, all of us are always using others' ideas. And if I share, it's no longer stealing. Heaven knows I'll never have time to fully realize all of my half formed plans. They're always coming. So by all means, if you find inspiration from anything you see here, take it and run with it.

And without further adieu, here are some of my ideas.

The Ride: An Alternative Sensory Experience

If you have never experienced Binaural Sound, then get out the headphones. Jourdan showed this to me recently, and while I'd read about it, this was my first time hearing it.

After you've put on some good (preferably noise canceling) headphones, go on over to this site, hit play, close your eyes, hold still, and listen. You may be surprised. The recordings are done with a special dummy head, with hi-fidelity headphones where the inner ear would normally be. The end effect is remarkably realistic playback, because you only hear what you would have heard, exactly as you would have heard it, if you had been in that exact spot in the room. Simple old technique, powerful results.

So convincing, that if you combined the auditory queues with other sensory input, the illusion could become complete, even indecipherable to the uninformed participant. Any sensory queue to indicate that this isn't real could be eliminated. It could prove more haunting than any deceiving sight, more convincing than the most believable film.

I want you to imagine the following scenario.

You are led into a room, and asked to take a seat on chair in the middle of the room. It's clearly not a normal chair, more like a throne, or some dentist's chair, or a combination. It's elevated and decorated, unlike any fashion you've seen before. The rest of the room is equally elaborate, with an odd assortment of objects resting on shelves and tables. Porcelain dolls, antiquated laboratory equipment, musical instruments, swords mounted in a family seal. It's more than you can take in all at once as you are directed to sit. The floor creaks. As soon as you are settled, your host leaves the dimly lit room. It all seems like something from an H. P. Lovecraft story.

To your right is a small end table, with a note on it. You read. It directs you to sit still, facing forward, arms on the arm rests, legs resting on their marks. Sure enough, there are outlines of where feet should go. When situated, you are instructed to press the button at the end of the left arm rest. You press.

From behind you hear a previously hidden mechanism activate, as
earmuffs close in on the sides of your head. Just before they stop, restraints spring from the chair, securing your arms and legs before you can do anything. Your heart rate rises as you realize you can't move.

His voice is distant at first, but comes closer. There are footsteps. Are the earmuffs...
muffling his voice? Or...is his voice coming from the muffs? The door behind you opens, and you see his silhouette on the opposite wall as he enters.

The lights go out completely just before he begins addressing you.

You can imagine the horror in such a simulated environment, but as convincing as hearing all of this is, that's only the half of it. Suppose we provoking the other senses. You feel a breeze when a window is opened, or the chair jolts when the speaker stubs his toe, or the whiskers of our bearded narrator brush your cheek when he suddenly whispers in your ear. All it would take is a fan, a solenoid, or a feather (respectively) in the right place, at the right time. Remember the objects in the room when you came in? They become a very convincing part of the illusion, when you hear the sound of an unsheathed blade from the family crest, see a faint glow from some scientific tool, hear a violin playing in the corner, or scuttling footsteps from where the porcelain dolls were. Perhaps you hear the floor creak in the same place it did when you walked in. The Narrator takes a picture of you, but all you see is the flash. And unbeknownst to the participant, the chair is mounted on hydraulic pistons, and can twist, jolt, and contort however it's programmed to. The Ride will take you as far as your imagination, because that's where the action is. The only thing that moves at all is the chair, and no more than a few inches.

And this all takes place in pitch black.

Imagine the different scenarios you could play with:

-A Séance.
-Organized Crime; you can't see the Boss' face, or you'll be sleepin' wid' da fishes.
-A Disfigured Narrator; a la The Phantom of the Opera.
-A Dinner Table, with conversation and the passing of plates, bowls, and utensils, the smell of warm food filling your head.
-An Electric Chair, when something goes terribly wrong with your execution.

Production entails nothing more than would a stage play, with the right script, actors, set, and hardware. Only this performance can be recorded, perfected in post-production, and replayed indefinitely.

This isn't really a new idea, so much as a synthesis of a lot of older ideas. Binaural Sound goes back well over a century. The false sensation of movement, produced by pistons under your seat, has been used in many popular rides at amusement parks, such as Universal Studios' Back to the Future: The Ride. Smell-O-Vision is almost exclusively spoken of as a joke, but would be perfectly viable with this setup. It may be too effective. There would need to be an escape button somewhere in reach, in case the user begins to panic. Trust me, you would have people panic. You'd need to have participants sign a waiver before going, in case somebody dies of a heart attack. I would imagine at least as strong of reactions as the first motion pictures had.

The hardware setup and format of the experience is perfectly flexible, so long as you have a scripted scenario to match it. You could use something less restraining, like this prop helmet by A.H. Leman. The helmet was actualy conceived and built for a very similar game as I have described. Like I said, this isn't a new idea. Just on a grander scale, with the twist of visual deprivation. It's perfect, just ask Steven Spielberg about Jaws. The scariest menace is always the one you can't see.

I would really, really like to
personally further develop this. There is probably enough information online to figure out how to do it. But don't imagine I will have the time or resources any time soon, much less a venue.

UPDATE January 9, 2008: I found four things. First, the same effect can be achieved in recording without the $8000.00 Dummy Head. You can use special in-ear microphones that cost 1/100 as much!

Second, try some of these. I like the Huggins Pitch and the Franssen Effect.

Third, a video, and a great little song.

Here is another video, though I can't embed it.
Fourth, by sheer coincidence, the one and only book I picked up in the library today, a book I'd never heard of, deals heavily with binaural recording and fear. It is the companion book to an art exhibition by the authors that uses many of the same techniques that I've outlined here. Ya, that happened. Coincidence? You tell me.

Also serendipitous, I saw this book, entitled "The Killing Machine", immediately after leaving my class on the Aesthetics of Crime in French & German Film, where we had discussed the artistic and expressive angles of murder. Crazy.


Jasie said...

this is a horrible idea. I dont mean a bad idea, but a scary, terrifying one. I listened to the "virtual barber" and it scared the crap out of me. It's awesome and weird and frightening...I kinda hope you do something with it...

Jasie said...

I should also mention that I couldn't stop giggling when the virtual barber was frightening me. Just like a roller coaster or a good horror movie. awesome, awesome idea

D Smith said...

when we're all rich and powerful we'll do it.

Austin said...

Better yet, this will make us rich, and thus powerful.

Rob said...

dear austin,

great idea, feel free to link to my blog. i'm coming out of the closet.


Jasie said...

H.P. Lovecraft story indeed...

Austin said...

What does that mean, Jasie?