Have you ever found yourself wanting some quiet time, perhaps in an unfamiliar town, and not known where to go? The app SoundPrint (available for iOS and Android: soundprint.co) is a crowdsourced service that rates locations — with an apparent emphasis on eateries — by their relative volume and din. And unlike Yelp reviews, where your favorite local spot gets downgraded because an entitled out-of-town grouch wanted the waiter to smile more, SoundPrint’s core information is primarily quantified in nature, rather than anecdotal.
To participate in rating a place, you click the SoundCheck button, to which you feed at least 15 seconds of uninterrupted sonic mise-en-scène. Your individual data is then processed and collated alongside previously submitted user data. When you click through to a specific location, you see all the SoundChecks to date, plotted by time period within a given day. It’s not an exact science by any means, but it’s a good enough gauge whether a given coffee shop doubles as a heavy-metal meet-up, and if a nearby museum’s restaurant is hermetic or boisterous.
When you do a local search, the locations pop up with color-coded, numerical ratings that represent averages of the submitted information. A search of my neighborhood definitely aligned with my personal experience:
The restaurant Steins, for example, while often playing some alien-to-me sports event on a huge TV behind the bar, is quite large, with a high ceiling that provides space for sound to disappear into. Chili House (one of my two favorite Sichuan restaurants in San Francisco, I should mention — the other being the quieter Sichuan Home) can, indeed, get exceedingly loud, with packed tables and a generally upbeat clientele. (For the record, I’m still living pandemic-style and eating outdoors. Chili House, fortunately, has its own dedicated parklet.)
The design of SoundPrint’s layout is worth looking at more closely. Not only are there decibel levels (69 for Steins, 91 for Chili House), there are colors that make the relative volumes easier to distinguish at a glance. In addition, some places, like the Richmond (which is, indeed, very quiet), get highlighted thanks to user nominations.
The one thing that stands out to me, at this phase of the SountPrint app’s development, is how the decibels are given such weight. Most people aren’t familiar with the meaning implicit in the numbers, and so users may not recognize that 61 is, in fact, quite quiet for a restaurant. I could imagine a situation where, in the future, either people do come to understand those numbers, or the app diminishes their prominence in favor of colors and some other form of data visualization — perhaps like how in Los Angeles an A, B, or C serves as shorthand for the top 30% of food-safety ratings, with the numerical score posted only for those that get a 69 or under (at least that’s how I think it works).
As with any crowdsourced app, SoundPrint will only be as good as its users — unless, of course, Nest or Siri or other digital assistant gadget gets involved, and locales start submitting their own realtime data. And if such a thing happens, then there will be inevitable scandals about how some restaurant is feeding recordings of empty rooms into SoundPrint to cheat the system. Which now that I type it, seems more likely than not. (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)