Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Exploratorium App Explores the World of Sound

The folks at the Exploratorium in San Francisco are some of the best in the world at designing participatory exhibits that teach visitors about their own perception and the world around them through direct experience.

ExploratoriumplaybackwardsThe Exploratorium has long had a website — it was the world’s 600th (or so) in 1993 — but the tablet is perhaps a more fitting venue for its craft, given that the devices are by their nature social because they can be easily shared, and that touch provides a less abstract method of interaction.

The Exploratorium’s first free iPad app, Color Uncovered, has been downloaded one million times since late 2011.

Today, it’s launching a second, called Sound Uncovered, with a set of fun and mind-bending audio illusions, manipulations and tests.

Jean Cheng, who led the team that built the app, took me through a series of mini-iPad exhibits on a recent visit to the still-under-construction new Exploratorium building on the water at Pier 15 in San Francisco.

For instance, there’s a Mobius strip kind of demo of a chord progression, where it’s impossible to find the highest note. There’s another one where you move a slider until you can hear a high-pitched sound, and the app estimates your age. There’s another that plays your voice backward so you can teach yourself audio palindromes.

They’re not necessarily things you’d do over and over again, but they’re pretty neat in the moment, with explanations of what phenomena are occurring.

Asked what ages Sound Uncovered is appropriate for, Cheng declined to say. “Anyone’s experience is authentic,” she said. “This is for curious people of all ages. It’s not about answers, it’s about a ‘what happens’ style of thinking.”

Sound Uncovered was developed with a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Exploratorium doesn’t have any particular ambition of making money from it.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik