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Bone conduction: the new front in guerilla advertising

Imagine this scenario: after a long day of work, you settle in a train seat, rest your head against the window and close your eyes for a well-earned nap - only instead of the soothing clickety-clack vibrations…

Bone conduction technology enables commuters to hear advertisements via their skull – but how? Mr.Fink's Finest Photos

Imagine this scenario: after a long day of work, you settle in a train seat, rest your head against the window and close your eyes for a well-earned nap - only instead of the soothing clickety-clack vibrations of the carriage, you hear a deep, jaunty voice - seemingly in your head - urging you to download an app.

Don’t worry - you (probably) aren’t losing your mind. You may have read last week German media company Sky Deutschland has been linked to a new advertising program targeting train commuters. And while a new media source on trains may seem like no big deal in this digital age, there is something about this program that sets it apart.

The audio information of these ads is transmitted via the window of the train. When you rest your head against the glass the signal is heard inside your head, utilising a phenomenon known as bone conduction. See some reactions to the technology in the video below:

How does bone conduction work?

Let’s think about how sound is detected. Humans perceive sound when particles vibrate in a frequency range that our ears are capable of detecting (between 20Hz and 20kHz). Usually, when we talk about human hearing, we are referring to the vibration of air particles that the auditory system processes as sound.

If you’ve ever tried to listen to someone with your head under water you realise just how good air is at transmitting sound to the human ear compared to a substance like water.

The unusual thing about bone conduction is that the vibrating material is not air, but a solid object. Think about what happens when you lean your head against a train window: you can hear a myriad of sounds from the tracks and the carriage that your ears don’t pick up through the air.

The cochlea. wellcome images

This is because your cochlea, or hearing organ, is a bony structure coupled to the bones of your skull. When your head is placed against a vibrating object, like a train window, the vibration is transmitted directly to your cochlea through these skull bones.

Bone conduction assisted hearing isn’t anything particularly new. The technology is already used in bone-anchored hearing aids, swimmers' headphones, and will be used in the soon-to-be-released Google Glass. But this appears to be its first time used in advertising.

Can I escape it?

You can, but you might have to say goodbye to your window-supported naps.

Earplugs will not be able to block out a bone conducted signal; in fact, they are more likely to enhance it. By sealing the ear canal with a plug, one becomes more vulnerable to the occlusion effect.

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To demonstrate the occlusion effect, block your ears completely and speak. Your voice sounds different because you are hearing a combination of the air and bone-conducted signal of your voice vibrating through your skull.

Using earphones would block most people’s ears enough to cause an occlusion effect, and this would make the bone conducted signal even more annoying to those commuters who did not wish to hear it.

Depending on the volume of the transmitted advertisement, it may be possible to block it out (or mask it) with music playing through earphones. However, if commuters are forced to increase the volume of their music players to cover up annoying advertisements, there is potential for that music to cause damage to their hearing.

The only ways which you could actually avoid hearing these advertisements would be to rest your head on a dampening pillow, made of a material that would not transmit the vibration, or take your head off the window altogether.

If advertising campaigns like these were to become commonplace, napping on public transport may be a thing of the past. Enjoy them while you can!

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    It seems to me that the people who are trying to sell us things/services never rest and are perpetually scheming to find ways of extracting more money from us. Some of it is quite dishonest or misleading (eg energy door to door sales).

    Am I the only one who thinks that there has been a big increase of "in your face" type marketing? I become antagonistic to this and am more determined as a result NOT to buy the marketeers' product or service.

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    1. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      "I become antagonistic to this and am more determined as a result NOT to buy the marketeers' product or service"
      +1, and I include advertising that insults my intelligence, such as it is.

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  2. MsKatieKatieKay

    logged in via Twitter

    More noise pollution. The world is getting noisier by the day and we have fewer ways of getting away from it. Now we won't be able to rest our head on a train window without getting inundated with noise and advertising?! It's enough to make you go mad.

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  3. Steve Davis

    Brian Surgeon

    "The only ways which you could actually avoid hearing these advertisements would be to..." cut those wires

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  4. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

    The ongoing encroachment of advertising into more spheres of life is a great social ill, leaving less space for reflection, conversation or focused attention. When that advertising is largely aimed at inculcating a consumerist mindset and behaviour, and when hyper-consumption is driving ecological crises, political myopia, social dislocation and psychological disintegration, then developments like this represent novel forms of delivering these cultural toxins.

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