October 18, 2016

Communication Student's Innovations in Sound are Bang-On!


By Alisha Pillay

Examining the use of sound to map urban emissions of air pollutants, Marc St. Pierre won the award for “Best Use of Sound” at the International Conference for Auditory Display (ICAD) hosted in Canberra, Australia this past summer.

Marc’s interest is sonification - the study of the non-speech representation of data through sound. “Think visualization and all the graphics that have been created like pie charts and bar graphs - I do the same thing with sound,” Marc explains.  His research seeks new ways of sonifying information that engages with the public. He studied climate data because the topic is in the forefront of public consciousness. “People are primed to understand relationships between climate data and their health, and economy and environment.” The choice seemed a natural fit.

In order to represent pollutants in urban environments, Marc modified an existing sound synthesis method called frequency modulation. Applying this innovative method, Marc noticed striking results when comparing Vancouver to Sarnia, a city with a large chemical industrial complex. “When you compare the sonifications from Vancouver and Sarnia, you can reveal which area is more polluted based solely on sound.” This specific innovation won Marc the award.

Marc’s interest in the study of sound was sparked early in his youth. In elementary school, he was a member of a boy’s choir that performed around the world. One song in particular he remembers performing was that of composer and former SFU professor, Raymond Murray Schafer – a man who ten years later would become a very prominent figure in Marc’s life. Schafer is known for coining the term ‘soundscape,’ which refers to all of the sounds in a given environment and the cultural ways of understanding those sounds. This coined term grew a whole area of study in acoustic ecology, which examines relationships between people and sounds and the cultures they create. “It’s a bit of a windy road from there to what I’m doing now, but when you start to introduce technology into those frameworks, you sort of find yourself there,” Marc explains. “I kind of got obsessed looking at Schafer’s work and reading his books. When I learned he taught at SFU, I knew this would be a great fit for me.”

Why sonify stuff? What’s the point? Marc explains, “we live in a world where we are inundated with visualizations, which are very useful and pretty, but somehow people think that’s all that there is. Using other modalities to represent data is new for people. I think we are in the same position with visualization as we were with film 100 years ago [when films had no sound]. No one questions when you look at information that it could also sound like something – that it could be audible. With sonification, we try to reverse the notion that all information has to be funneled into one sense – the visual sense. Information can be understood in a more human way.”

Able to travel with the Glenfraser Travel and Secure Capital Awards, Marc’s time down under was short, but he’s grateful for the time he had. “It was a great opportunity to meet people interested in similar areas of research. I was able to dive into details while presenting and receive some great critical feedback. I am eager to continue collaborating with SFU’s Sonic Research Studios and finish my degree."