In the autumn of 2020, we received a lot of feedback that our sound beacon was rather loud and some of our customers had even been startled by it. Based on the feedback, we decided to modify the beacon. The work was carried out together with Sound Designer Aki Päivärinne from Granlund and experts by experience. In this way, the sound was designed to meet the needs of its target group as functionally as possible. The experts by experience were representatives of the Helsinki and Uusimaa Visually Impaired Association and the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired.
Accessibility has been an important part of Oodi’s design from the beginning. The sound beacon is part of this. But what in the world is a sound beacon and what is its significance for the visually impaired? Answers to these questions are given by the experts by experience:
‘A sound beacon helps people who are visually impaired orient themselves in their surroundings and thus move independently. It gives a direction both when approaching the target and when walking away from it. In Finnish winter conditions, it is the only outdoor navigation aid, as the tactile paving for use with a white cane is covered by snow.
The sound beacon also accurately indicates the location of the entrance. This benefits people who are visually impaired arriving at the building by taxi, for example, as the driver is not allowed to walk the customer to the door without separate compensation, so the beacon makes it easier to find the door on one’s own.
The sound beacon can also function as a meeting point. A person who is visually impaired can arrange to meet their assistant underneath it and thus be sure that they are in the right place. Furthermore, the sound beacon helps people pinpoint their location, regardless of whether they are coming to the location or not.’
As we can see, the sound beacon has several different functions. Oodi is a central building and therefore the sound beacon also has an important role to play as both a locator and a guide. What should be taken into account when designing the sound of a sound beacon?
The sound of a sound beacon must be audible and distinguishable from other ambient noise, but it must not be disruptive. Unlike warning signals, the sound of the beacon should be a pleasant call that signals that it can be approached safely. For example, the sound of a lorry’s back-up beeper indicates that there is danger here, stay away. The sound must also be clear to a person who is vision and hearing impaired and using a hearing aid.
Furthermore, the technical design of the sound beacon must take into account electroacoustic properties in order to direct the sound in the right direction. The Oodi sound beacon uses a so-called column speaker installed horizontally.
Oodi’s sound beacon is designed specifically for Oodi and therefore has its own sound. Sound Designer Aki Päivärinne explains how the sound was created:
‘The sound design of the beacon developed through a multi-stage process. The sound played by the beacon is a kind of a micro-collage, as it contains many sounds from different sources. The choir heard in the sound is called Maailma-kuoro, which was conducted by Raija Silfverberg at the time. Material was recorded with the choir back in the autumn of 2019 at a concert hall called Nya Paviljongen,’ Aki says.
Aki also adds that ‘the sound beacon also includes snaps produced by handling a pinecone and the sounds of water drops. All the sounds were selected for the content because of their own character and to make the content of the beacon as functional as possible from a psycho-acoustic perspective.’
Thus, the creation of a sound beacon is a multi-stage process that requires a number of different factors to be taken into account. For this reason, it is good to also have experts by experience involved to ensure that the beacon works well for its intended purpose. The Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired and the Helsinki and Uusimaa Visually Impaired Association provide help with various enquiries regarding visual impairment. Operators such as libraries can seek their help with accessibility matters.
Juha Sylberg from the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired, Jari Pekola from the Helsinki and Uusimaa Visually Impaired Association and Sound Designer Aki Päivärinne were interviewed for this article.