Grocery sounds

Academic 2009.

Explorations on new sound possibilities for cash registers.

Explorations on new sound possibilities for cash registers.

Cash registers

The subject of this project, to tie it to a real-life situation (and ‘problem’), will be the one of cash registers. More precisely, it concerns the relationship between cashiers, customers and the ambient and task-related sounds that occur in a grocery store.

Intent

The intention in this short, 3-week project, was not to (necessarily) propose a revolutionary concept, but rather to create experiments on ‘intelligent’ alarms, signals and ambient sounds. This, so that the project has a real-world connotation and design-driven intention, but moreover so that it does not become a pseudo-arty-only experiment.

That being said, ideally, one would try to rethink the whole concept and experience of buying groceries—in other words, reversing the concept completely so that sound is integrated in the physical, public space that constitutes the grocery store from the very beginning (as opposed to simply putting a redundant and not very informative sound—the ‘beep’—as a source of feedback). One thing seemed quite clear to me: the actual impression of a grocery store’s soundscape is one that obviously has not been studied nor ‘designed’ as a whole.

In short, the objective is to create a system of sounds rather than a system based on one sound.

A simple scenario

Below is a very simple—well, actually, quite simplistic—scenario intended to present the project.

Research

Since this project was of a duration of a little less than three weeks, everything had to be done quite swiftly. Since the topic of our project was left to us to decided and the only ‘rule’ we were given was to make a project in which the main interactions were made with sound.

After shuffling a few ideas as to which theme(s) I could explore with this project, I felt like I had to take on a subject that had to be somewhat unusual and also a subject that would involve a large audience… and so I thought of the modern grocery store/supermarket!

Image of a modern (swedish) supermarket.

Image of a modern (swedish) cash register.

Given the tight time constraints of the project, to tie it to a real-life situation (and ‘problem’) as well as keeping things relatively realistic time-wise, the focus of the project rapidly shifted to cash registers.

In essence, my main concern was the relationship between cashiers, customers and the ambient and task-related sounds that occur in a grocery store.

If you’re interested in reading more about the back-story that inspired the project, click on the link below.

Show text.

Sound inspiration

Quite appropriately, I recently came to discover some of the works by American composer Steve Reich, and particularly the works he did on phasing, repetition and rhythm in the 1960s. Although I am by no means a musician, I find the way his music plays out incredibly inspiring and relevant in a so-called repetitive environment such as the one of a cashier.

The idea here is not to try and have the cashiers ‘compose’ a piece of music. Rather, with the use of repetitive sound loops or excerpts of a more ‘musical’ nature, the overall ambience of the supermarket could be tinted (or coloured) differently.

In no particular order, here are what constituted a few of my preliminary thoughts and design guidelines

Since that the very nature of the work of a cashier involves massive amounts of repetition, why not exploit it?
Percussive instruments or percussive ways of playing or generating sounds seem quite appropriate.
Rhythm and repetition are key.
As of now, the ‘beeping’ sounds of the cash registers are quite high pitch / high frequency and definitely not integrated in the grocery stores as a part of it’s landscape.

From the customer’s perspective

An idea would be to enhance the experience of (gulp!) buying, again, by adding supplementary layers of information. Of course, some people would not notice or ‘get’ the idea. —But that’s not the point. The point is that by adding layers of information, the people in the supermarket or grocery store could have the opportunity—and option—to interpret that information, hence giving it their own flavour.

Reintroducing so-called ‘flaws’, more distinctiveness and dare I say, personality to the sounds produced to the sounds produced by future cash registers.

They need some sort of feedback to verify the accuracy of prices.
The visual reference is good. But perhaps a sound could ‘tell’ something more.
They could potentially receive some ‘meta’ information on the purchased items. (for example: price, freshness, sale, meat, veggies, fish, etc.)

From the cashier’s perspective

Feedback is mandatory when scanning items.
The sounds will be much more varied.
The volume would be toned down, less obstrusive.
They too, would ‘understand’ better what they’re selling.

A visual and audio simulation of the sounds

Below is a video demonstrating the sounds that the scanning of items would produce at a grocery store. As you’ll surely notice, I tried to keep the visuals as basic as possible.

The sounds

Sound for a scanned item with a price range of 0–60 SEK

Sound for price range 0–60 SEK

Sound for a scanned item with a price range of 0–60 SEK (item on sale)

Sound for price range 0–60 SEK (special)

Sound for a scanned item with a price range of 61–200 SEK

Sound for price range 61–200 SEK

Sound for a scanned item with a price range of 201+ SEK

Sound for price range 201+ SEK

Sound for a scanned item with a price range of 201+ SEK (item on sale)

Sound for price range 201+ SEK (special)

Characteristics of the sounds produced

Many attempts at finding what seemed to me an ideal sound.

The bass (muted) seemed to fit the best all the criteria I was aiming for (human-like, round, mellow, subtle, low volume).

The sound gets longer and deeper as the price of the items increase.

Given the context, the repetition involved as well as the speed at which sounds are triggered, single-note sounds seemed more appropriate.

I hesitated between bass and xylophone sounds for a while. I opted for the bass, or rather, contrabass, because its sound is very close to the human voice’s frequency range.

Gives metadata on the level of business of the cash registers.