Noise-cancelling technology is nothing new. Headphones that can eliminate most unwanted ambient sounds have existed for years through a combination of different techniques such as active noise control and soundproofing. The way these headphones work has been explained and demonstrated very well in the past. Basically, the way that noise-cancelling works in headphones is by interfering with sound waves. By contrasting high pressure incoming sound waves with low pressure ones and vice versa at just the right time, the headphones virtually eliminate the sound before it reaches your ears.
The trick here, however, is that the speakers are located directly on your ears. Noise cancellation requires relatively precise distance measurements in order to calculate how far the sound waves have to travel. Otherwise, noise cancellation or even soundproofing is extremely hard to achieve because one has to take into account a number of different variables.
Noise cancellation in a single device?
Way back in 2013, a device called ‘Sono’ made the Internet rounds by claiming that it could cancel out sound by countering vibrations created on window surfaces. In theory, this could work in certain rooms because sound does indeed travel through that way. After a James Dyson Award, the device fell into obscurity, most likely because the concept was extremely hard to implement in real-life situations, considering the huge variety of sounds and room setups. A single device, after all, can only do so much.
Now, we have another contender for the “noise-cancelling devices” space with Muzo, a device that absolutely crashed its Kickstarter goals and then went on to Indiegogo to make more than double the money in pre-orders. According to the project video, which you can see below, the device basically creates personal bubbles of noise-cancellation so that you can block unwanted audio in a variety of situations.
Could the Muzo work?
Some of the case uses demonstrated in the video certainly seem more plausible than others. As I mentioned before, placing such a device on a window might block incoming ambient noise from outside. That is particularly true as the Muzo transmits its own ambient landscape sounds which might help to cancel or at least dampen noise from outside. Other uses, however, seem far more like proofs-of-concept than reality. The café example, for instance, seems too far-fetched. Blocking incoming noise from so many different directions would take a serious, careful setup with multiple devices. The Muzo seems to generate some ambient sound of its own in that case too but to be in the “personal bubble” as demonstrated by the product video, one would have to be in an extremely precise position or risk the opposite effects.
To be more precise, the interference that Muzo likely has to create in order to cancel out noise could work against it. Standing in certain areas of the room may actually cause the sound to be amplified instead of being dampened. Precisely controlling the way sound waves bounce around a room with no idea as to the position of the person or even the position of the device inside a room seems fishy, at best. The fact that the Muzo might well be able to limit and dampen vibrations is not disputed here. Again, placing it on certain surfaces, like windows, and in specific rooms, might indeed have the desired effect, at least to some level.
If the Muzo does work as advertised, it could pretty much change the way I view social interactions. You could be sitting in a coffee shop or a busy restaurant and still have an intimate conversation with your partner or friend. You could sleep easily in apartments that face traffic-heavy streets, and have some peace of mind when you want to study or work from home.
While the claims made by Muzo sound fantastic, they might well be too good to be true. Like every other Kickstarter project, we will have to wait and see the final version before we can reach any viable conclusion. However, the scientific foundation behind this project is not particularly solid. As such, I would take any claim made by Muzo with a grain of salt, even more so than I usually do with projectson Kickstarter.