Unbeknownst to me, many office buildings have been employing “masking sounds” that “raise the background sound of a room so that speech is rendered unintelligible beyond a certain distance.” Science 2.0 has the press release of this ongoing research:
Sound masking systems are custom designed for each office space by consultants and are typically installed as speaker arrays discretely tucked away in the ceiling. For the past 40 years, the standard masking signal employed is random, steady-state electronic noise — also known as ‘white noise.’
But scientists are researching the idea of using natural sounds like flowing water instead of the industrial white noise.
In this ongoing work, they expose 12 human participants to three different sound stimuli while performing a task that requires them to pay close attention: typical office noises with the conventional random electronic signal; an office soundscape with a “natural” masker; and an office soundscape with no masker.
The results aren’t in but the idea is intriguing. Their paper is “Tuning the cognitive environment: Sound masking with ‘natural’ sounds in open-plan offices,” by Alana G. DeLoach, Jeff P. Carter and Jonas Braasch, and was presented at the 169th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.