The Visual Microphone

In the 1858 edition of Wild Scenes and Songbirds, Charles Wilkins Webber speculated that sound waves might live on forever:

That a sweet sound should ever cease to be seems to me unnatural—at least unpoetical—for, let its vibrations once begin, though they may soon die to our gross sense, must they not go widening, circling on, stinging the sense of myriad other lives with a mysterious pleasantness (such as will overcome us in a wood upon an April day), until the uttermost bound of our poor space be past, and yet the large circumference go spread and spreading tremulous among the girdling stars? It may be so for all we can tell!

Webber’s notion of the perpetual sound wave has been shared by many writers, recordists, and sound engineers over time, who have dreamed that sound is always out there, and it is just a matter of learning how to capture it. Though sound is often generalized as being “temporal,” there is actually a nice line of thinking that has always imagined sound as infinite, stretching out through time and space, impacting everything around it until it girdles the stars.

Last week, a group of researchers at MIT made this previously speculative fantasy something close to a reality, with a process they are calling “the visual microphone.” The device is actually a high speed camera which can detect minute vibrations of objects in a room, and then translate these vibrations back into sound using an algorithm, even when the recording happened through soundproof glass. The results are not the highest in fidelity, but they are quite real, and quite good. Watch for yourself here:

This video (and many subsequent articles) inundated my Twitter feed last week, but perhaps no one said it better than my friend Nate Brown, who wrote to me, “The world has its own language.”

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