A recent New York Times article on going to restaurants over 50 didn’t need to remind me of something almost all of us oldsters already know — you can’t hear people any more except in rare quiet restaurants. If I sit down with a group, at best I might manage a conversation with the people on my left and right, and if I am lucky, those opposite. And my voice will be sore.
So here’s the answer, and app I want. An audio conferencing app for people in loud restaurants.
Everybody brings a smartphone and their earbuds, with microphone. If you want to be really fancy have a whole headset, but that looks a little geeky at a social event.
The phones sync up and do a local ad-hoc wifi (or bluetooth) mesh network. You all start the app and swipe an agreed code so people at the next table can’t join or decrypt.
Then they share audio for the dinner. Get those earbuds that plug up your ears to block out the rest of the room. Talk in an ordinary voice.
As a fancy feature, you see the faces of the other people on your screen. You can mute out some, or turn them down to quiet, to let you have a conversation in a subgroup. You can freely have a conversation with somebody way at the other end of the table. You can make your conversation private so the others can’t hear it even if they try, but that’s probably rude. Anybody can but in and announce something to the whole table and revert to group conversation. Perhaps the tool is very smart and figures out what subgroups are talking to one another and how that switches, and adjusts volumes accordingly. Perhaps you can even use voice commands, and say people’s names to start talking to them. (The phones will share names and photos so you know who is who — another useful thing when you’re getting older.)
The system could try to figure out the arrangement of people around the table. Or people could quickly touch and drag the faces to collaboratively do that layout. That could help the system decide what volumes to use.
That leaves the problem of the waiter. You need another microphone for the waiter. So somebody has to bring a spare phone. Or quickly unplug their earbuds and hand their phone to the waiter — who, it being his or her job — can hear you all without the buds. Or maybe restaurants get used to this and the waiters get the app on their phones, the system designed to let them speak to the group but not listen back.
Or, of course, people can all pull out their earphones when the waiter shows up.
The biggest issue will be latency. You can’t really have much at all, unless people are willing to tolerate everybody’s lips being out of sync. That precludes too much analysis of background noise with fancy techniques. Even the 10-20ms of phones and peer to peer wifi/bluetooth may be too much for people to like. It could be this would need to end up as a pure analog or barely digital radio product, which means it costs money and is harder for everybody to have one. Some phones add a lot of latency to their microphone. Apple phones are generally pretty good. Some Android phones are good, but others are terrible and might not be able to participate. (It’s OK if the phone has bad playback latency as that only punishes the owner, while bad microphone latency punishes everybody listening to the owner.)
Of course, if we could just find a way to increase the video latency to match the audio latency it would all be in sync. 🙂