technology, researchers still gave sound little formal
thought. Most computer systems of the time relied
on centralized computing resources (due to the high
cost of hardware), so users were often provided only
a green screen text terminal. Most such terminals
had the ability to produce a beeping sound and
would do so whenever a process completed, but otherwise, they did not utilize sound. This use of sound
as a functional alert may have been a carryover
from 1960s Teletype machines, which would ring a
bell upon completing a transmission.
The important human-factors work of B.H.
Deatherage, published during this period, remains
relevant today. In 1972 Deatherage proposed the
following set of criteria for deciding when to use
audio rather than visual displays (see Table 1).
Though Deatherage was primarily concerned
with human-factors issues related to the design of
human-operated “equipment,” his guidelines are
a useful starting point for designers considering
functional sound in interfaces today.
The most important practical development in the
use of sound in the 1970s came from games, which,
beginning with Atari’s Pong, utilized sound as a
standard element. What is particularly interesting
about Pong is that its sounds performed absolutely
no function and made no obvious aesthetic contribution. Pong could be played equally well with the
sounds turned off; the noises were little more than
a monotonous beeping. Pong thus represented a
new form of sound aesthetic in computing: sound
as character (or branding). Though Pong’s sounds
were unhelpful (and potentially grating), they were
a key element of the Pong experience. Modern
examples of this are the startup sounds used by
the Apple and Windows operating systems.
As technology improved, sound rapidly took
on a larger aesthetic role in video games. The
simple music of Space Invaders, which debuted in
1978, sped up as the game progressed, creating a
purposefully heightened state of anxiety in the
player. Abstract sound was thus used to create
emotional responses (much as film scores had
been doing for decades).
The 1980s—Auditory Displays, Icons,
and more Video Games
The 1980s marked a new era for sound and computing. With faster microprocessors and cheaper
memory, the ability to record, play back, and synthesize sound became widespread, stirring greater
interest in its use. Accompanying a broader interest in human-computer interaction, significant
attention was given to sound and computing in the
1980s and ’90s.
In 1982 the Commodore 64 was released and
became the best-selling personal computer of all
time. A built-in sound chip allowed it to produce
a greater range and depth of sounds than many
of its consumer-oriented predecessors; it proved
a popular platform for early computer games. As
a result, computer and video game music became
an entire genre in and of itself. Sound in computer
games also began to take on more than a purely
aesthetic role: Music often alerted players to a
change in the game (such as a level timer running
out), and sounds with an identifiable source were
used to signal off-screen events. In 1984 the classic
Epyx game, Impossible Mission, even used musical
puzzles as game elements, thus bringing the use of
sound back into the functional realm.
Also in 1982, Sarah Bly presented her seminal
work on information sonification to the Conference
on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Bly’s
[ 2] Deatherage, B. H.
“Auditory and Other
Presentation.” In Human
to Equipment Design
edited by H. P. Van Cott
and R. G. Kinkade.
Washington D.C.: U.S.
1. The message is simple.
2. The message is short.
3. The message will not be referred to later. Fewer paid workers
4. The message deals with events in time.
5. The message calls for immediate action.
6. The visual system of the person is overburdened.
7. The receiving location is too bright or dark—adaptation integrity is necessary.
8. The person’s job requires him to move about continually.
• Table 1: When to use the auditory or visual form of presentation [ 2].
1. The message is complex.
2. The message is long.
3. The message will be referred to later.
4. The message deals with location in space.
5. The message does not call for immediate action.
6. The auditory system of the person is overburdened.
7. The receiving location is too noisy.
8. The person’s job allows him to remain in one position.