It’s an iconic, stress-inducing sound – think about medical dramas or crime thrillers set in hospitals. And now, we bring the beep home, some of us. Beep. Beep. Beep. Unceasing. Stat reveals one medical-device company’s attempt to create a better suite of beeps with the help of an electronic musician:
In other words, Yoko K. Sen is an ambient electronic musician, born in Japan but transplanted to the United States, where she’s layered her breathy, machine-modulated vocals over ethereal blooms of synth at galleries, in concert halls, and on award-winning albums. In recent years, though, she’s created a new, more corporate niche for herself: revamping the soundscape in hospitals. Medtronic had hired her, late in 2017, for a related project, to help design the beeps patients would hear from their cardiac monitors at home.
We’re so surrounded by electronic noises that we hardly notice them — and in a hospital, where that digital symphony becomes even more feverish, an unnoticed alarm can mean a dead patient. So redesigning those chimes requires a delicate balance: Attention-getting but not startling, easy to differentiate but simple enough to learn.
That was the task facing Sen, 38, when Medtronic asked her company, Sen Sound, to come up with around 10 tones for their new remote heart monitor. This medical music was for the home, not the hospital, but many of the same constraints applied. Nearly a million Americans have bits of Medtronic hardware nestled inside their chests to keep tabs on — and, sometimes, intervene in — their heart rhythms. Those implantable devices come with a plastic doohickey that sits at the bedside as a kind of cardiac satellite, taking in data on how well a person’s blood is being pumped and then beaming the information out to a webpage for their physician to check.
That bedside monitor was the instrument on which Sen’s newest piece was to be played. It was a strange assignment, applying the lessons of dreamy electronica to everyday electronics. “There’s not a lot of sound design expertise in the medical industry per se — certainly not the kind of expertise you would normally associate with writing music, or creating little melodies,” said Michael Wiklund, general manager of the human factors engineering practice at the global safety consulting firm UL.
But there was a precedent. A cruise-ship-pianist-turned-anesthesiologist, an opera-loving clinician, and a small flock of psycho-acousticians — to name a few — had spent decades working on similar compositions, with oversight from a kind of United Nations of medical sound. They’d all been struggling with the essential, but oft-overlooked, questions that now faced Sen: Just how much could you improve something as limited as a beep? And if you did, how much of a difference would it make?
She first got sick around 2012, and by 2014, her condition had worsened enough for her to spend the year undergoing a frenzy of poking and scoping and testing to figure out what was wrong.
Her career had been built on listening — placing a beat just so, shifting tones to create an otherworldly shudder — and now she was surrounded by a thoughtless hellhole of sound: beeps, footfalls, rattles, screams, beeps, and more beeps.
“I remember I was hooked to several different monitors,” she said. “One of them was beeping so loud, nonstop, and I asked a nurse who came in, ‘Excuse me, this thing keeps beeping, is this OK?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that thing just beeps.’ That gave me such a lasting impression. ‘Yeah, that thing just beeps.’”
[via delight monger]