Students’ soundscape fills the New Children’s Hospital

A generative soundscape in a hospital is the first of its kind in the world. Created by Sound in New Media students at Aalto Media Lab, the soundscape will be developed further on the basis of user studies and research over years to come.

The students of Aalto Media Lab have designed a soundscape to a new children’s hospital in Helsinki. As the largest children’s clinic in Finland the hospital is the center for treatment for patients coming from all over the country. The New Children’s Hospital is partly crowdfunded and was taken into use in September 2018. Designing the soundscape from concept to its audible form was a long process.

– I was contacted by the hospital management in spring 2015 to discuss the idea of having a tailored soundscape in the hospital. By then I did not even know who will be the students actually creating the content for the project – but I knew that they will be able to do it, says Antti Ikonen, the lecturer in charge of Sound in New Media studies at Aalto Media Lab.

After 2015, Ikonen started to plan the soundscape together with Outi Ampuja, adjunct professor and noise and sound analyst at the University of Helsinki and Miikka Peltomaa, ear specialist and adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki. Ampuja, Ikonen and Peltomaa coordinated the project from the beginning stages until implementation in fall 2018.

Weekend full of tweaking before opening

Ikonen coordinated the project from the beginning and he wanted to give the students a lot of freedom to decide how they would like to contribute to the design of the soundscape. The planning, sketching and testing of the sounds were done within the course Sound Seminar which runs weekly throughout the whole academic year. The Sound in New Media major and minor students began the work in September 2017 and finalized the project in August 2018 on location at the hospital only a few days before the opening.

– The weekend before the opening of the hospital was intense. We spent a few nights in the hospital tweaking the sounds, testing the environment and making sure everything sounded as intended, says Tytti Arola, one of the students of the design team.

New type of loudspeakers

For the soundscape project, Genelec and Panphonics, two Finnish loudspeaker manufacturers, donated altogether 60 speakers which are placed all over the lobbies and corridors of the building. Ikonen wanted to build a sound system which is entirely operated from one computer feeding all the speakers over the hospital’s IP-network. For this kind of setup Genelec’s brand new IP-audio monitors were a perfect choice.

– The soundscape playing in the hospital is generative, in other words it’s not a loop nor a playlist of pre-recorded tracks. Furthermore, it’s possible to assign each detail of the soundscape to any of the 60 different speakers around the hospital. Although this kind of sound system hadn’t been installed anywhere before, the people from Genelec said that their upcoming IP-audio speaker will fit into the scheme. We didn’t need to install any audio cables in the hospital since the sound is transmitted as data, Ikonen says.

In addition, Järvenpään Yrittäjät ry, the Entrepreneur Association of Järvenpää, donated an iMac Pro to the hospital that plays the software created by the students.

Soothing sounds for patients and staff

– Each floor in the hospital has a different visual theme such as jungle or forest. The students designed the sounds accordingly, aiming at a soothing experience which would make the hospital environment less intimidating for the kids. In addition to this, there were obviously lots of other factors to consider when judging which sound would work in each different location. When designing the sounds, the students had also to keep in mind the hospital staff. It’s a different situation to work in a space and spend eight hours a day there. Some sounds which might feel pleasurable when listening just for a while might turn irritating in the long run, Ikonen describes.

– The feedback from patients, their parents and the hospital staff is valuable source of information. Using the feedback, we can develop the soundscape further to improve everyone’s comfort at the hospital, Ampuja says.

During the years to come the project will continue and the soundscape will be developed and fine-tuned according to research-based feedback from both visitors and employees of the New Children’s Hospital.

Read more and listen to the students’ work on newchildrenshospital.aalto.fi.