New "3D" Microphones Can Pick Conversation From A Crowded Room

By James O Malley on at

New microphone technology could make it easier for the robots of the future to hear us, an understand what we are saying - according to scientists.

Researchers at Imperial College, led by Dr Patrick Naylor, have come up with a microphone that they say can be "zoomed in", just like you can zoom on a camera when taking video, to isolate only what you're looking for.

According to the press release, this is how it works:

"The zoom-in system combines 32 microphones round a sphere that can listen in on sounds coming from any chosen direction. The zoom mic measures the tiny differences in how long it takes sound to reach each of the microphones around the device and uses an algorithm to compare them. The differences help the mic figure out what sound is coming from where so that it can then tune into sounds coming from one particular spot."

The scientists say that one example of an application of the tech could be in hospitals of the future, with robots able to interact with patients more easily, even if the room is otherwise noisy. It could also improve mobile phone technology as assistants like Siri could conceivably tune into our voices and ignore everyone else. Hearing aids too could also be improved as wearers are able to tune into the person they're talking to. Perhaps less charitably, you can't help but wonder what a boon for the spooks it would be if everyone was carrying around a microphone like this in their pocket.

"Being able to listen selectively, focusing on one person, is vital for human communication. Until artificial intelligence can listen to different parts of the soundscape going on around it and pick out important conversations AI will never properly be able to interact and converse with humans in noisy real-world situations" says Dr Naylor. "It’s a big challenge to be able to take away all the extra noises completely but this is a first step towards that".

Sadly we couldn't get hold of an image of the new mic (the one above is just an example of what a microphone looks like, for the forgetful). We had a look on the department website, but all we could find is photos of academics eating Christmas lunch.

The Royal Society has announced that it will be demoing the technology to the public at its Summer Science Exhibition, which opens to the public tomorrow at its headquarters in London.