Love your IoT gadget but could you keep the noise down?

Breakout? I don’t want to live like that

Super Woofer by Pleuntje, Flickr, under Creative Commons 2.0

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Shutupshutupshutup. There’s a man with an extraordinarily annoying voice on this floor and I wish he would take his fulsomely resonating gob somewhere else. Blah blah market synchronisation blah blah invested intelligence blah blah cooperative disruption arse bollocks.

Don’t you just love open-plan offices? Actually, come to think of it, I do.

It could be claustrophobia that leads me to prefer the airy freedom of a wide open office dotted with a forest of square white columns, like the cathedral at Cordoba reinterpreted as brutalist architecture, plus blue carpet tiles. Or it could be that I get bored of my immediate colleagues very quickly and often feel the need to get out of my seat and take a stroll across the floor, navigating the desk-rippled landscape as I go, the air-conditioned breeze whistling through my hair and the occasional rubber plant leaf whipping across my face.

It’s so bracing.

Or perhaps I just feel lonely in a cubicle. No chance to get lonely here, though! At least, not while megamouth is thundering away with his verbal fart-attack.

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As I hike along the office trail, I hear colleagues muttering to each other: “Who is that loud man? Where is he? Why can’t he talk normally?” Even as I reach the other end of the forest, I can still hear him, clear as a bell, albeit a bell that spouts a continuous stream of jargonised turds instead of going “ting!”

Heads pop up above desk dividers for a better look, like meerkats, and still they’re none the wiser. Simples, I tell them, it’s a prospective client being humoured by the sales team in the breakout area.

Ah yes, the "breakout area": the one blot in the middle of my green and pleasant open-plan landscape.

Back in the day, every open-plan office would benefit from the common-sense addition of a general-use private room where ad hoc meetings could be held, projects discussed and deals struck. Associated with every such meeting room would be two unfortunate souls: the steely PA on the sixth floor who’d been told to manage room bookings against her will and could break your legs with a single stare, and the poor sod whose desk was nearest to the meeting room door and found himself forced to respond to queries about its current availability from tentative visitors every 15 fucking seconds throughout the day.

In recent years, the wafer-thin plaster walls have been torn down and the floorplan redesigned to accommodate a central "breakout area". This looks the same in every office I have visited. The office manager, having determined that everyone should sit on identical grey chairs at identical grey desks with identical grey separators, appears to have outsourced the design of the breakout area to half a dozen colour-blind cushion-and-formica fetishists from a company that specialises in building play area ball pools for Ikea superstores.

I suspect they call it a "breakout" area because it was created by patients who broke out of a lunatic asylum.

The breakout area in this office consists of a round table surrounded by ugly stacking school chairs, a breakfast bar with stools (even though the nearest kitchen is 100 metres away), some uncomfortable purple sofas that angle your body so that you face the ceiling in a very unbusinesslike manner, and a single spherical Emmanuelle-style wicker chair suspended by a cord from the ceiling but which no one dares sit in because it makes embarrassing squeaking noises and the last person to risk clambering into it ended up being carried away on a stretcher by St John’s Ambulance.

Nestled alongside five members of the sales team in a huddle of high-backed, red-quilted benches – evocative of a padded cell in a brothel – is our loudmouth. Blah blah introspective analytics blah blah.

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It’s not even that he’s particularly loud, just that his voice has a resonant quality to it. Each time he speaks, my forehead buzzes, objects fall off desks and wineglasses shatter across the restaurants of West London. It’s like someone reintroduced Sensurround, the sub-audio "rumbling" track invented for the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake to add realism to the quake scenes by causing cinema audiences to spontaneously reacquaint themselves with the popcorn they’d eaten some minutes earlier.

While Mr Blah-blah is talking, no one else on the floor can think straight for the vibration his voice is causing to their frontal lobes. His presence in the office is like the Dalek Morse Code you get during a landline phone call when you leave your mobile on the desk; he is like the microwave oven when you’re trying to watch TV in the kitchen; he is the electric toothbrush while you’re listening to the bathroom radio.

He is a disruptor. He is interference.

Now imagine what it might be like if everyone talked like that, all the time. The office would be in uproar. Pretty funny, yes?

Well, that’s what the Internet of Things is going to bring to your office and home: scores of clever motorised devices trying to hear themselves think over the radio-frequency noise they and other devices are inadvertently spewing forth at each other all the time. Blah blah blah.

Every complex RF control chip is not just a potential source of noise but a likely one. All your dopey IoT gadgets – from the heartbeat sensor in your bed that alerts you as to whether or not you are dead, to the smartphone-controlled audio system and LED dimmer lights that you installed in the vain hope conducting a romantic seduction next Friday night which is, let’s face it, never going to happen – are going to contribute to the electronic din.

What’s that, you say? Shielding? Insulation? In your dreams, pal. Not at the prices you want to pay. While it’s true that engineering advances over the years have progressively reduced RF interference of everyday machines – before 1927 it was not even possible to listen to a car radio while the engine was running – the problem is that the IoT will introduce more of them than ever before, crammed together in greater density and closer proximity, and all cheaply chucked together in China for the mass market.

So far, the only people complaining about the rising levels of static, especially in urban areas, are amateur radio enthusiasts. These, as you are aware, are regarded by the authorities and general public as slightly lower down the gene pool than conspiracy theorists and tinfoil-hatted UFOlogists. However, in an oblique way, everyone with a Wi-Fi router has become an accidental radio buff and our reception is about to go titsup with RF pollution.

There you’ll be, supping your Columbian Gold soya latte extra shot with manly bearded sprinkles in a hipster cafe shithole while remotely trying to convince your internet-enabled gas boiler to switch on the hot water so you can have a shower when you get home… only you can’t because your vacuum cleaners are drowning out the instruction while your curtains try to draw themselves, your TV is downloading a boxset you’ll never watch and your fridge is bellowing out a history of your egg compartment to a radius of a quarter of a mile for no good reason.

When you get back home, you struggle to get out of your autonomous car because your neighbour’s washing machine keeps switching it into reverse just as you enter the drive. Eventually, you are freed by the spin cycle and spend the next 10 minutes trying to trigger the front door by waving your smartphone frantically in front of the reader pad, only achieving access to your home another 45 minutes later after reinstalling the operating system, downloading an app update and installing a JavaScript routine you found on GitHub.

The house is full of smoke because your self-cleaning windows accidentally told your oven to preheat to 300 degrees celsius at 10 o’clock that morning. You can’t use it to cook anything because the fridge locked itself shut two weeks ago when you stood too close to it while checking your email. So you settle down in your programmable comfy chair, setting it to Massage Mode, as you switch on the TV to catch up on the 7,456 hours of box sets that have been recorded and backed up to AWS.

Except it turns out that all 7,456 hours turn out to be 7,456 repeated plays of the same and only episode of Game of Thrones that contains no nudity, so you promptly fall asleep. You wake up later in some discomfort, only to discover that your neighbour’s exercise bike has interfered with your chair’s settings, causing it to operate the last two hours in Anal Sex mode.

No wonder that man had a loud voice. A little radio silence is in order, don’t you think?

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Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He warms to the idea of the Internet of Things but does not trust any of it to work safely, reliably or securely until authorities step in to regulate this aspect of radio frequency emissions. He would like to see a little less disruption and great deal more organisation.

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