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pmuellr is Patrick Mueller, Senior Node Engineer at NodeSource.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

audio vs video

The Redmonkers have been starting to web publish video interviews along with their usual audio interviews. Coté seems to be doing most (all?) of the work, and you can catch these as he releases them on his blog.

I like to see people experimenting with new technology, and 'upgrading' from audio to video sounds like a fun experiment (pardon the pun). But it doesn't work for me.

My issues:

  • There really isn't that much 'extra' in a video interview, over just the audio. You get to see faces. You get to see some body language. Maybe a picture or two.

  • The idea of watching an interview means I have to have two senses trained on the media: eyes and ears. You're killing my continuous partial attention!

  • I can't listen to it on my video-challenged iPod.

  • The reason I don't have a video-capable iPod is that the situations in which I listen to my iPod don't lend themselves to allowing me to watch something on the device as well: driving, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, etc.

I fully admit to being an old fuddy-duddy; even Rush Limbaugh does video of his show. Good luck guys, and, if you can, also make the audio portion of your videos available as an MP3. I'm not alone in this wish.

But let me change the direction here. Let's look at an environment that is high on video interaction, and absolutely bereft of audio interaction. Your programming environment. Your IDE, be it Eclipse, NetBeans, IntelliJ, Visual Studio, XCode, Emacs, or a text editor and a command-line. How many of these programs use audio to help you develop code? None. Well, I might be lying, I'm not familiar with all of these environments, but I don't recall any of these environments making use of audio like they do visuals.

When we're programming on all cylinders, we're in 'the zone'. Continuous full attention. Eyes reading and scanning, fingers typing and clicking and moving mice. Where's the audio? It ain't there.

Nathan Harrington has a number of articles up at developerWorks, such as "Monitor your Linux computer with machine-generated music" which discuss ways developers can use audio in their computing environment.

This is good stuff, and we need more of it.

I would be remiss in not pointing out here that audio feedback like this is only useful to those of us lucky enough to have decent audio hardware and software in our heads. Those of us without such luck wouldn't be able to take advantage of audio feedback. On the other hand, folks who lack decent video hardware and software in their heads would most likely appreciate more emphasis on a sense they are more dependant on.

The most obvious use case for audio in a development environment is with debugging. There are a lot of cases while debugging when you just want to know if you hit a certain point in your program. The typical way you'd do this is to set a breakpoint, and when the location is hit, the debugger stops, you see where you are, and hit continue. Breaking your attention and demanding your input. What if, instead, you could set an audio breakpoint, that would play a sound when the location was hit? So your attention wasn't broken. And you didn't have to press the Continue button to proceed.

With regard to audio debugging, I know this has been experimented with many times in the past. I've done it as well, a decade ago, when I was using a programming environment that I was able to easily reprogram: Smalltalk.

But audio usage in development environments is not yet mainstream. There's lots of research to be done here:

  • What are the best sound palettes to use: audio clips, midi tones, short midi sequences, percussion vs tones?

  • How should we take advantage of other audio aspects like volume and pitch and three dimensional positioning, especially regarding continuously changing quantities like memory or i/o usage by an application?

  • How do we deal with 'focus' if I'm also listening to Radio Paradise while I'm working?

  • Does text-to-speech make sense in some cases?

  • How do we arrange multiple audio feedback to be presented to us in a way that's not unpleasing to listen to? Not just a cacophony of random sounds.

  • Beyond debugging, where else can we make use of audio feedback?

  • How might audio be integrated into diagnostic tools like DTrace?

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