Your ear is a wonderfully precise instrument for analyzing and comprehending complex information. That's why you can converse amid the din of other voices at a cocktail party, says Gregory Kramer, composer, inventor, and sound researcher. At the Santa Fe Institute, a private research organization in New Mexico that focuses on complex systems such as weather patterns and the global economy, Kramer is looking into how computers might create sounds just to portray complex data to people.
Even combining three spatial dimensions, color, and animation, visual displays can portray only five data variables at once. But use a computer to vary a sound's pitch, timbre, and other aspects, and you could detect changes along 8, perhaps even 10, variables, Kramer says. Sonar operators use this ability to identify submarines. Someday, Wall Street traders might similarly listen to synthesized sounds for meaningful changes in a fast-moving financial market.