Today, most offices use an “Absorptive” surface that sucks in sound, Yadav says, but retroreflective coatings would help reduce the overall office-noise level. The chairs, too, encourage talkers to reduce their volume levels, Yadav says, by projecting the speaker’s voice toward the front, at whomever they’re speaking to. The chairs could be used all the time or just in busy open spaces, he says. They then measured how much the devices muffled the sound the dummies were hearing. They don’t yet know exactly how much the retroreflective ceilings work to reduce sound, but they found that the chairs blocked external noise by about 10 decibels, or about the effect of cupping your hands over your ears. This is all part of the mostly fruitless search for a technology that might make open offices less miserable. Some researchers are looking into “Natural” white-noise sounds, like flowing water, to muffle office sounds, or large, felt “Isolation cones” that would hang from the ceiling and provide temporary privacy.
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