Authenticity of experience: Technology vs. perception

February 04, 2013

The 2011 Volkswagen GTI uses a loudspeaker (“Soundaktor” in VW’s parlance) mounted to the engine firewall to play pre-recorded engine noise and make the car sound better to the vehicle’s occupants. 

The new BMW M5 plays recorded samples of engine noise over the stereo system to enhance the auditory experience of driving. (For further reading see: http://bit.ly/Q8Gp8v) Some owners are distracted, disenchanted, disappointed, disgruntled, disgusted and disambiguated about this. Well, maybe not the last one, but they’re not happy. Why? If one examines the history of automobiles, it’s obvious that ever since the first prehistoric teenager got his first Flintstone-mobile there have only been two objectives: 1) make it go faster and 2) make it sound cooler. (OK, three objectives: use it to attract the attention of prehistoric teenage girls). The cars mentioned above sound better with the technology than without, and the car owners were blissfully ignorant until they discovered it. So what’s the problem?

First, I’d like to clarify something. This issue is, to me, fertile ground for a philosophical inquiry into product design. I don’t think that the manufacturers have done anything morally wrong, and at the same time I acknowledge and respect the owner’s objections. I am simply fascinated by the emotional undercurrents and what they might teach us about how people respond to design. I’m curious about where the rubber meets the road.

Now, we might guess that the owners’ opposition comes from any kind of technological trickery, but there are some interesting counter-examples to consider, like anti-lock brakes, traction control and active suspensions. We like that cars stop quickly on slippery roads and we don’t really care how or why. We like that we can drive blindingly fast, taking turns at impossible angles and we don’t care how the car manages to do it. We don’t seem to care that the suspension or brakes depend on electronics and actuators to augment the “normal” mechanisms. We like driving as fast as possible at every moment, and if that means that we need to use retro-thrusters and NASA-developed robotic arms to stop us before we careen through the back wall of our garage, then, by the moons of Jupiter, they better be an option! (N.B.: Many high-performance drivers dislike active suspensions because they can’t “feel the road” as well as with a passive suspension.) But brakes and suspensions are about Objective #1: driving performance. It’s possible that performance doesn’t play by the same rules as aesthetics.

The continuum of available sound enhancements provides an illuminating context. Engines are frequently tuned to sound better, and many aftermarket intake and exhaust systems are specifically designed to make engines sound better. Passive resonators (a shower for your engine to sing into) can be used to change the sound quality of the engine, and even mounted to the firewall, which in turn acts to amplify the engine noise further. Porsche’s new “Sound Symposer” allows the driver to route more engine noise into the cabin at the touch of a button, by virtue of a mechanical valve placed between the engine air intake and the cabin. The approach of interest, however, is a little different in that it plays back pre-recorded sound in response to how hard the driver is stepping on the gas.

Our rationality has limits and sometimes we gladly sprint past them in pursuit of beauty and authenticity.

So how do we know when we’ve gone too far? A cleverly designed pipe or other resonator seems not to offend, because it’s still physically working with the noise the engine is generating under the hood as we’re driving. And indeed, these passive devices are what most drivers advocate using. I think the new playback technique crosses a philosophical line in the sand by dramatically weakening the physical, acoustic connection between the engine that’s actually under the hood and the sounds we hear when we drive it. Instead, we hear sound that came from some other engine, somewhere else.

I think authenticity is the key to seeing this issue from the perspective of the people who object. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with simulation. We’re willing to tolerate simulation in some cases and even embrace it when other needs outweigh the experience of the genuine article. How many apartment-dwelling pianists have a nine-foot grand piano? How many have an electronic keyboard that sounds almost as good as a nine-foot grand piano? But this arrangement is one of necessity (cost + space) and the tradeoff is manifestly obvious. Nobody says upon delivery of their new electronic keyboard, “Whoa! How come this thing doesn’t have strings and hammers? And where’s the big, weird-shaped top thingy?”

But we are emotional creatures. Our rationality has limits and sometimes we gladly sprint past them in pursuit of beauty and authenticity. A quote from the film "Must Love Dogs" gives an example of a willing trade of performance for authenticity. The protagonist, Jake, is lovingly, painstakingly building a wooden racing boat even though he can’t find anyone to buy it and race it. His friend thinks the whole endeavor is pointless:

Jake: "Wood boats can win, trust me on that."
Friend: "They can't win. That's why people don't want them."
Jake (grudgingly conceding the point): "They can't win, but they lose beautifully. And the whole experience is just better."

Performance is not everything. Performance and aesthetics is not everything. Sometimes performance and aesthetics and cost is not even everything. Sometimes the thing underneath the performance, aesthetics and cost is everything, or at least something. But it’s not nothing. Authenticity increases the depth of an experience. It creates the opportunity for not just a pleasant user experience, but a romantic experience. In this case, the auditory experience is an indication of engine performance, but it’s also an intimate, real-time connection between car and driver. Knowing that you’re listening to a simulation changes that connection.