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Making Some Noise About Noise

Snapper-lawn-mowerThis morning my normally tranquil home office was pierced by the sound of a neighbors lawnmower. The lawnmower, while aggravating, is just the lead-in to that most vile of power tools…the leaf blower. Leaf blowers should be outlawed.

All of this has thinking about noise. In even modest amounts, noise degrades our ability to communicate. Beyond simply annoying, it hampers productivity. Therefore noise has very real costs. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of conference calls or video conference calls. These are cases where extraneous noise should be avoided.

The classic conference call wisdom, good advise to this day, is that all participants to should diligently mute themselves when not speaking. People being what they are, many do not know of or act upon this belief.

When using a managed conference bridge, like ZipDX, the call moderator has the ability to mute a noisy participant, ensuring that their local acoustic reality doesn’t degrade the call experience for everyone. That’s great, but it really just allows the moderator to compensate for the fact that someone on the call is exhibiting poor conference call etiquette.

I recently noted that Polycom had posted some short, interesting new videos to their You Tube channel. Several of these clips reference new capabilities in noise suppression/avoidance. For example, in one clip Jeff Rodman mentions something called their new “acoustic bubble” feature. Being the curious sort, I thought that I’d look into this.

Googling for the term I found a corporate blog post that explains it nicely. More recently Polycom CMA & EVP Jim Kruger gave an interview to AV Magazine that explores their recent efforts in noise reduction/avoidance.

Headset-Bubble“Headset Acoustic Bubble” is a new feature in Real Presence Desktop, a soft client application for use with their RealPresence platform. This is an application that I have used a fair bit over the past year or two. It’s basically a SIP & H.323 end-point.

Headset acoustic bubble aims to overcome the reality that most users don’t exercise sufficient discipline with respect to self-muting. Combine this with open plan offices, or worse, coffee shops, and you have a recipe for distraction not unlike my neighbors routine yard work.

This new feature leverages a computer’s built-in microphone to sense the ambient noise level in the environment of the user. The output of the built-in microphone is compared to the output of the users headset microphone. This comparison is used to intelligently control the mute state of the the microphone on the users headset.

There are a couple of assumptions underlying this feature. It presumes that the computer under consideration is a laptop. This because it presumes that there is a built-in microphone that can be used as an ambient audio sound reference. Secondly, it requires that the users is wearing a USB headset. Of course, the audio interface in the laptop can only cope with one input device. A USB headset provides it’s own, entirely separate interface device, making making both microphones available to the software for comparative purposes.

It happens that I have Real Presence Desktop installed to my laptop, although I had v3.0 installed, whereas the experimental version of the acoustic bubble feature is implemented in the v3.1 or later releases. Happily, I was able to install the update without requiring a new license. You can download the application from the Polycom support web site. Lacking a license key it will run in trial mode for 30 days.


The acoustic bubble feature is in the Settings area, under Test Features. To enable it requires a password. The usual Polycom default admin password “456” worked for me.

As it happens, I believe in using headsets, so I have a diverse collection of headsets on-hand. What I have yet to devise is some meaningful way to evaluate this new capability. Perhaps when next they cut the grass….yes, that might just work.

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