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On the third floor of Arup Global Acoustics’ office in Lower Manhattan is a small, fabric-enclosed space that looks and feels like a cocoon. It features an enormous curved screen, a bone-shaking sound system, and an Oculus Rift VR headset. Arup, a design and engineering firm, calls it the SoundLab.
The company line is that the SoundLab creates virtual sonic environments to help architects improve the acoustics of their buildings. What it really does, though, is transport you visually and aurally into any space—a concert hall, a subway platform, a cathedral. It’s one thing to make it look like you’re there; VR is good at that. It’s quite another to make it sound like it. “We’re using the data to help you feel,” says Raj Patel, Principal at Arup Global Acoustics.
Architects working on SFMOMA used the SoundLab to tune two theaters there; the same technology helped dampen the potential cacophony of the Fulton Street Transit hub in Manhattan. To make it work, engineers build a computer model of a building or space and then map a web of measurements called “impulse responses” that create an acoustic signature. Then the engineers record source sounds—a piano concerto, for example, or the rumble of a subway—in an sound-dampening anechoic chamber. […]