Table talk is sometimes wishful thinking.
“Being able to hear your date is important to most people and particularly important to me,” says Gregory Scott. His hearing aid, like all hearing aids, amplifies sound indiscriminately—the sounds he wants and the sounds he doesn’t—so it’s not much use in loud restaurants. Yet that’s just where he often found himself on first dates. Totally deaf in one ear and largely deaf in the other due to childhood meningitis, he supplements the hearing aid by lip-reading, but lip-reading on first dates is not feasible either. “It’s like a crossword puzzle,” he explains. “You hear vowel sounds, and you have to figure out the consonants.” Filling in those missing letters is much harder if you’re talking to a stranger and have no context clues.
Those anxious first dates led him to create SoundPrint, a smartphone app. Once downloaded, it turns your phone into a decibel meter. You can check sound levels just for your own edification, but what Scott really wants is for you to send in your readings to SoundPrint’s online database, a simplified version of which appears on the app.
Scott got his MBA at the U-M in 2008. Though he now lives in New York City, he still has many friends here, which is why Ann Arbor is one of a handful of cities where SoundPrint has robust enough data to publish a list of quiet restaurants: they include Aventura, China Gate, Logan, Mediterrano, Taste of India, the Chop House, and the Earle.
For me, this list raises more questions than it answers—and Scott is the first to admit that the data is still pretty thin. SoundPrint works on the principle of crowdsourcing, and so the list tilts heavily toward the places his friends have chosen to test it. The more data, the better it works.
Scott and I were speaking in a quiet conference room of the business school. Upstairs, the din of the annual homecoming party going on in the lobby clocked in at eighty-three decibels—I measured it myself on his app. Ideally, he says, to have a pleasant conversation, you want a public space to be under seventy-five decibels—and to protect your hearing you don’t want it to exceed eighty (the decibel scale is logarithmic, like the Richter scale used for earthquakes, so the difference between seventy and eighty is vast). “People don’t think of noise as a public health issue,” he says, “but due to rising noise pollution, there’s a hypothesis that people will start losing their hearing in their forties and fifties.”
Scott’s mission extends beyond helping people locate optimal dating spots. He wants to bring his data to governments, academics, media, and anyone who can influence public policy. He says he has no interest in profiting from SoundPrint, and it’s hard to see how he could. The free app is also entirely free of ads and nagware.
Scott waves away the two most common questions about the utility of his app. Doesn’t it depend what time of day you take the reading? Yes, of course, but people tend to take readings at peak hours. In the next iteration, the time stamps on all readings will be viewable. And isn’t the quietest place the place with the fewest people in it? Not necessarily. In fact, he says, if you’re in a strange city, a good rule of thumb is to head for a Japanese restaurant. It’s counterintuitive, since Japanese restaurants tend to go for spare décor with hard surfaces that amplify sound. But because people know that, they tend to whisper in them.