Science Technology

Enhanced reality: Noise in Space?

So it occurred to me (while watching some dumb sci-fi TV series set in space) that maybe spaceships that make noise in a vacuum isn’t such a dumb idea after all. I mean, obviously they wouldn’t (couldn’t) make any noise, but there would be all kinds of reasons why it would be in the best interest of neighbouring ships to simulate the sensation. After all, noise can convey all kinds of useful information – different guns make different noises, different engines make different noises, you can tell the location – perhaps even the speed – of an object by pure noise alone. If we were to assume that – in space – the computers and sensors on ships would most likely be taking in much more information than a human could easily assimilate through a visual interface, then it makes total sense that you’d try to deliver some of it through sound. In fact it seems astonishing that you wouldn’t!

In such an environment – detached from everything outside your pressurised container by metal and vaccuum – the only sense that you’d otherwise have much use for would be sight. Smell would be pretty much redundant, you couldn’t reach out and touch anything and taste (bluntly) wouldn’t be that useful. Even the limited amount of motion senses that we have would probably be quite dramatically interfered with by the unfamiliarity of space and either an absence of, or a highly localised and disorientating forms of, gravity. That being the case – making use of a sense that would otherwise have very limited input would seem to be eminently practical and useful. Overlaying this enhanced – information-delivering, but yet still artificial – reality over normal video footage would create an outer-space that was more obviously comprehensible to human beings. That simple layer of mediation would help transform the insanely complex and alien into the routinely prosaic (this being – after all – precisely the reason that TV series put the noise in). So From now on I’m going to pretend that’s what they’re doing when the Romulan ships let off a volley of patouieee-ing distruptor blasts. I’m going to pretend they have a special insight into the world of the future and the ambient interfaces that they might use. I’m going to remark to myself, “How clever they were to think of that!”

For more information on various kinds of enhanced reality, you might try out some of these links:

13 replies on “Enhanced reality: Noise in Space?”

Not a hugely new idea (as you admit) but it makes a lot of sense. What I think would be great is if astronauts (on EVA) heard their crewmates as if they were talking through air. So instead of a crewmate’s voice sounding the same no matter where he was through your headphones, you’d use positional sensors in spacesuit to provide the information to simulate the sound his voice would make in air from that particular direction and distance.
This would mean that if you were working on a particularly troublesome AE35 unit and your crewmate called out to you, “I’m floating away!” you know roughly where he was without even having to look around.

you are turning into the “Star Wars technical commentaries” and I claim my 5 pounds (see below). Warning – this site contains a genuinely demented level of analysis, including “In A New Hope the labels on the tractor beam power device deactivated by Kenobi are seen in English. The text says something like “tractor beam 12 sector N6″. According to folklore, Lucas wanted to use non-English symbols but his movie studio disallowed it for the sake of audience comprehension. Therefore we can assume that this is an instance of implicit translation in the movie — much like the implicit transaltion of speech into real-world terrestrial languages.”
The most plausible explanation is that the sound is produced inside the cockpit of each starship for the benefit of crew. External radiation sensors of various kinds are linked to audio systems of the cockpit in order to provide the pilot with audible cues to the proximity of other starships and energetic phenomena, operating like a glorified Geiger-counter. A greater rate of particle detections occurs when the source is more powerful or closer; each of these contributes an audible click on internal speakers, millions of pulses received combine to give a sound which characterises the emission spectrum of the passing starship.

Easy real-life example: on fighter jets, when missiles are coming towards them, the beeping gets faster the closer they get. Easier than having to keep glancing at that damned radar, I guess.

Waaay back in the mid-1980s, White Dwarf magazine had an SF themed cartoon strip called “The Travellers”. I think one of the characters had sold combat sound effect simulators to space pilots for a living.
I’ve got no idea how I’ve managed to remember this, or why I’m admitting it in public. Anyway, it’s not a new idea, but it might be useful or amusing.
Peep ( does something similar for networks, using woodland noises.

This reminds me of an article in wired, where they were talking about different ways to convey information to the pilot. Such as a touch sensor that would put pressure on different parts of the back to indicate which was is up. When you’re pulling multiple G’s you can get easily disoriented. I think they also had a taste based sensor.
I always thought about that growing up, like how did those tie fighters make that whooshing sound? I wrote it off as this enhanced noise you’re talking about. A great idea, nice post.

Sound does travel in space, evidenced by the B flat note emanating from a black hole discovered by scientists in the last couple weeks. The medium (whatever space “is”) just doesn’t vibrate enough for humans to hear it. This article explains it better than I ever could, but it could be that hearing noise in space might be as simple as putting a very sensitive microphone on the outside of your spaceship.

Samuel Delany’s novella _Babel-17_ has a scene which describes a spaceship crew who use enhanced reality to perceive things like gravitational fields, nearby spaceships, and so on, using not just sound but also smell, touch and vision – all very psychedelic, as befits its period (it was written in the late 60s).

One the best ‘space movies’, 2001: A Space Odyssey, used the absence of sound in space to great effect. The latter half of the film when Poole is killed by HAL conveys the horror and hearing the hiss of gas from his helmet would have been terrible. On the flip side, when Bowman pursues the body, a single intermittent ping conveys the distance to Poole, a remarkable and brilliant choice. Turning back, the explosive bolt scene works well because of the repressurisation sequence. Ultimately, hearing Bowman breath in the spacecraft (sans atmosphere) and have a dialogue with HAL as he goes to ‘destroy’ him is genius, especially in a crowded dark theater. Extraneous sound can be deafening.

Space Noise
How the noise of a Romulan ship leads to interesting meditation over enhanced reality : “So it occurred to me (while watching some dumb sci-fi TV series set in space) that maybe spaceships that make noise in a vacuum isn’t…

Comments are closed.