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The sound and the fury

The beep has gone from herald of the future to an annoyance of today.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 1999

The computer first beeped almost 50 years ago. It hasn't stopped since. And now it is not alone.

Pagers beep. Answering machines beep. ATMs beep. Elevators beep. Phones beep. We have warning beeps, ready beeps and attention beeps. There have been private and public beeps, and beeps heard around the world.

The beep has even entered the vernacular, courtesy of the answering machine ("Leave your message after the beep . . . "). American society has been inundated by peppy beeps.

The beep originally served as an alert. And for a long time, only high-tech things beeped, such as satellites and computers. But today the most mundane things -- from children's toys to pens -- do so.

"There are moments of my day where I think: If hear another beep, I think I am going to shoot the device," said Cindy Mason, a computer scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, who says she sometimes hears more than 100 beeps in an hour.

With its democratization over the past 40 years, the beep has moved from cutting-edge chic to downright tacky. And it may be headed for the scrap heap if sound designers have their way. "The time has come for the beep to die an honorable death," said B.J. Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University.

A small army of researchers, engineers and programmers has declared war on the beep, which, they say, has overstayed its welcome.

"Beeps have become like the little boy who cried wolf," said Bruce Tognazzini, a human-computer interaction designer for the Healtheon Corp. "They are often ignored even when they might have been useful. Having a computer that constantly emits the identical sound whether it is just happy to see you or is on fire and about to explode is akin to having a housemate that is similarly afflicted."

But the beep continues to hold its ground. "The downfall of the beep is only in fiction," said Bill Buxton, chief scientist for Alias/Wavefront, a software subsidiary of Silicon Graphics, and a foe of the beep. "In the real world, the beep is still thriving."

The sheer irritation caused by the beep is one reason for its longevity. Research has shown that humans are bothered by sounds that are sudden, high-pitched and short.

"If you wanted to design an annoying sound, you can't do much better than a beep," said Bill Gavin, a researcher at the Royal College of Art in England. Fogg described a beep as "a poke in the ribs, a simple but annoying method for gaining attention or compliance."

Computer historians say that modern computer beeps evolved from typewriter carriage return bells. Piercing beeps were substituted as alert signals for the familiar ring of the bell. Today the program code to make a computer beep is still called the bell character.

Why a beep, as opposed to a buzz or even a ding? The answer is dictated by economics. "Beeping is cheap," Gavin said.

A beep requires only two mechanical parts: an energy source and something to vibrate. Beep sound waves are produced by the rapid oscillation of on and off electrical pulses, in either a square form or a sine wave form. In contrast, more complicated electronic sounds require many more components.

The 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite ushered in a new era of celebrity for the beep. At the height of the Cold War, American television and radio stations broadcast the satellite's taunting signal as it blazed over U.S. soil every 96 minutes.

"The sound was something very remote, very powerful and very frightening" said James Katz, a Rutgers University professor who was 9 years old at the time. "After all, it was a man-made entity in space over the United States. The beep made it much more real."

In the 1960s, beeps became most strongly associated with high-powered mainframe computers, and for engineers and technicians, they were a comforting and familiar sound. But when computers breached mainstream workplaces, the beep began to lose its luster.

"Bankers are very sensitive about not making mistakes, so the beep gave the users an incredible psychological stress," said Giordano Beretta, who worked as a bank computer support technician in the 1970s. "If you use a beep to signal a problem, people hate it because they feel socially responsible for making a mistake." Beretta says he was regularly asked to disable beep features on the computers.

When bar code scanners were first introduced, many library and supermarket employees often felt that beeps represented management's measuring of their efficiency.

Even appliances not designed to beep will chime in the chorus given the right electrical impulses. In 1987 a utility company in Dallas conducted an experiment using electrical transmission lines to carry digital signals. As a result, the electronic appliances around the house of John Feagins began emitting a series of soft beeps every few seconds.

"I'd hear it out of the TV speakers," said Feagins, who was a physics student at the University of Texas at the time. "I'd hear it out of the radio speakers. I'd hear it out of the stove. It was everywhere in the house."

Despite his complaints to the utility, the beeping continued on and off for about a year. "I got aggravated enough to unplug everything, because otherwise I couldn't sleep," Feagins said.

Some have argued that the proliferation of the beep has a cultural basis.

"For some reason, Americans believe that the device needs to shout at you -- hence the loud beep," said Richard Giordano, a computer science lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The French, on the other hand, believe that the user should not be distracted from solving the problem, that the device should indicate the problem to the user in a calm manner and not get in the way of solving the problem."

That is why French nuclear power stations are much quieter than American ones, Giordano said.

Getting rid of the beep is not simply a matter of eradicating it; the beep has to be replaced with something else. Specialists who work in "human factors" laboratories are looking to create sounds that are less sharp and richer in timbre.

"It's a pity people don't use chimes and bells more often," said John Murray, a human factors specialist at Exponent Failure Analysis, a consulting firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

There are three main approaches to the design of information tones. One is the earcon, an audio equivalent of an icon, which uses different rhythms, pitches, timbres and melodies to communicate different messages. Increasing a sound's tempo, for example, makes it seem more urgent.

A paralinguistic approach gives computers a library of non-speech tones used in human spoken communication (such as "uh-oh"). Finally, audio icons use caricatures or simulations of naturally occurring sounds -- such as a burp -- that carry specific associations.

The current trend is for high-tech companies to have a trademark sound -- a logo for the ears, such as America Online's "You've got mail" and the ICQ instant messenger's peppy "Uh-oh!"

Apple Computer's Macintosh was the first desktop assault on the computer beep. Instead of using the simple grating tones, users could choose from several alerts ranging from a quack to the sound of a droplet.

The Windows platform also comes with a standard litany of sounds to choose from.

Screen savers and other programs for both systems let users substitute sounds, from Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" to the Star Wars theme song.

Despite the enmity it faces, the beep is still healthy, thanks especially to answering machines and personal pagers, which made beeps mobile.

But pagers also contributed to the beeper backlash. Pagers were originally the domain of an elite few who had to be reached immediately, such as doctors. "A loud ring on such a device let certain louts know, who might otherwise have remained unaware, that the pagee was someone of money and distinction," Healtheon's Tognazzini said.

When pagers became commonplace, their beeps became scorned rather than respected. As a response to customer complaints, companies introduced vibrating pagers, dealing the beep a major blow.

"Vibration was huge," said Karen Holmes, a marketing manager at Motorola. "Consumers just loved it."

The pager beep was displaced not only for reasons of etiquette but also for practical reasons. Mono-frequency beeps are unnatural to the ear, and psycho-acoustic research has shown that human ears have great difficulty determining the direction the sound is coming from, which is why it often seems difficult to find a misplaced pager or cell phone in a room or to identify whose phone or pager is sounding.

To Buxton of Alias/Wavefront, this is evidence that the beep's days are numbered. "When people start designing devices that demonstrate subtle, well-designed sounds are less intrusive and more effective than the beep, the beep will be shamed out of existence," he said.

But it is not going quietly. Even without a sound card, today's desktop PCs can belt out a primitive trill, which Eric Isaacson, a technical writer at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman, Wash., discovered much to his dismay.

After Isaacson installed Windows NT on his office computer, the machine suddenly began beeping loudly enough for officemates 10 feet away to hear. For four weeks, the support technicians at his company could not figure out how to make it stop.

"At first I just got a little irritated when it beeped at me," Isaacson said. But the situation soon escalated. "Later," he said, "I started making it beep on purpose, after it beeped at me first -- kind of the "I'll show you' attitude. This progressed to the point of my stabbing at the keys to make it beep, taking out my frustrations on the poor keyboard."

Finally, through an online news group, he found a way to silence the beep. "Now my beep lets out not a peep," he said.

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