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Saturday, Sep. 22, 2012
Japanese scientists win Ig Nobel for SpeechJammer
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Two Japanese researchers have won the spoof Ig Nobel acoustic prize for developing the SpeechJammer, a device that confuses and stifles a person speaking by sending them a delayed recording of their own voice.
"One scenario is that you can use this in a meeting room where chairs have buttons to stop excessive speaking," Kazutaka Kurihara, researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, said ahead of the Harvard ceremony Thursday, adding the device could make such meetings more "fair."
The 22nd annual event to award the prizes, which the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research awards in 10 categories as a parody of the Nobel Prizes, was held at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre. It was the sixth straight year that an Ig Nobel prize has gone to Japanese recipients.
Kurihara and his partner, Koji Tsukada, a researcher at the Japan Science and Technology Agency, were honored for creating the machine and for addressing the important issue of "overly talkative people," according to a source familiar with the Ig Nobel selection process.
Accepting the prize, Kurihara and Tsukada told the enthusiastic crowd of about 1,200 why they created the gadget, and when the speech went beyond the allotted one-minute mark, Tsukada used the SpeechJammer on his partner.
The idea for the gadget came about in 2010. After the team began working on a portable "speech jamming" gun, they first considered calling it the "silencer." They later decided that "jammer" was a more accurate description.
According to Kurihara and Tsukuda, the system is based on the concept of delayed audio feedback, a psychological phenomenon where the brain is affected or "jammed" by hearing its own, artificially delayed, voice. The device makes the speaker hear their own voice with a delay of a few hundred milliseconds.
After their research was published, the team received many other ideas on how to use the machine, such as modifying it for use on barking dogs or on loud political vehicles roaming the streets during election seasons.
Although aware that the technology involves a fine balance between equality of expression and free speech concerns, Kurihara hopes people will use the device not to suppress others but to let everyone have their turn to speak.
"You can see in TV programs famous politicians or leaders talking . . . it's a part of their job to be the priority in the discussion and it's like a performance," Kurihara said. "I would just like this kind of discussion to be fair."
Before the prizes were awarded, five Japanese musicians including Yuji Okuyama and Reiko Nakanishi made their U.S. debut in a 15-minute concert at which they played a "keromin," a frog puppet-shaped musical instrument they created. The name keromin combines the Japanese onomatopoeia "kero" for the sound a frog makes, and "theremin," an electronic instrument.
Other winners included Swedish engineer Johan Pettersson, who received the chemistry prize for figuring out why people's hair turned green in some houses in a town in southern Sweden. Pettersson explained that he ultimately succeeded in identifying the "culprit" — copper piping in newer housing units.
The peace prize went to the SKN Co. of Russia for their use of technology to convert old ammunition into new "nano-diamonds" measuring as small as four nanometers that can be used to coat objects to strengthen them. SKN director Igor Petrov said that "to take something destructive from war and make it into a useful product" is one of his company's goals.
Last year, a group of Japanese researchers won the chemistry prize for developing a smoke alarm that sprays a wasabi scent to alert people with hearing disabilities to an emergency.