Sunday, November 06, 2011

Adaptive volume level for audio on mobile communication devices

Mobile devices are meant to be used in various environments, as such I find it pretty surprising that the designers of user experience for these devices fail to address one obvious fact: the ambient noise can vary dramatically from one environment to the other. To be fair, each device has a volume control, meant to adjust the level of the audio volume above that of the background noise, however in some cases unexpected bursts of noise may occur in an otherwise quieter environment. It'd be great if the volume would adjust automatically to make up for the increased noise, and later subside when the noise is gone.

The alternative to automatic adjustment is to do it manually, which is the current state of the art. While that's merely a nuisance for regular audio output, like when listening to a podcast, or while in a phone call, it could have more severe effects when applied to the volume of the ring tone. I missed many calls on my mobile phone while I was out on the street, with heavy traffic around me. Even though I have my phone set to both ring and vibrate at the same time, I would still miss calls.

In thinking about solutions to this problem, the obvious approach is to use the microphone, if available on the device, to listen to the environment and react appropriately on increased noise. The drawback of doing such a continuous listening is that it may consume CPU and battery power, and that's probably why it hasn't been considered. Perhaps a better approach would be to let the user decide when that's worth doing. After all, this listening should only happen when audio is playing, so it may not be such a drag on battery.

One could apply further optimizations, by employing location information correlated with past data collected on the same location as a hint for quieter places, or data from the motion sensors as a hint that the user is on the move, hence more prone to the vagaries of the environment.

I remember how my first mobile device, a NEC pager, solved this beautifully. Upon receiving a message, it would first start blinking an LED. If the message was ignored it would start beeping ever so slightly, than it would gradually increase the volume to the point where it was so loud that it was almost painful to hear.

In any case, this should be handled at the level of the platform, since it's a concern that cuts across several apps that produce audio output. I'm looking forward for the first platform that will handle this effectively. My previous experience on Symbian/S60 and my current experience on iOS uncovered this as still lacking. What do you think, have you missed this capability too ?

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