Let me tell you a little bit about the exciting world of binaural audio and 3-D sound. Binaural recording is a production technique used to send slightly-different audio signals along stereo channels into your ears. It is designed to be used with headphones, and it can be really awesome. Not to be confused with stereo recording–designed for your home theater or car stereo or whatever–binaural recording makes heavy use of the way your brain processes the minute differences between what each of your ears hears.
Sound only travels so fast you know, so when a sound hits one ear before the other, we can tell. This is called sound localization and is essential for human survival, but it’s not the only neat thing we can do with our ears. Audio nerds began experimenting with this way back in the 1800s, and they’ve cooked up a number of funky tricks in the meantime.
Let’s start with the basics: binaural beats (or what the hippies call “audiodrugs”). Renowned biochemist and raging megahippie Gerald Oster popularized binaural beats within the scientific community back in 1973, linking the phenomenon with sound localization, the “cocktail-party effect” and the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. The alternative-medicine community (more hippies) thought it was great and added it to their list of bullshit, and that’s where it sat for decades, slowly developing along with the technology required to refine it.
But this is 2016, and what used to be “hippie malarkey” is now serious af. Audio technology is so advanced nowadays that people are actually getting high on sound. Scientists in the Middle East are calling to ban binaural beats because of their hypnotic effect and potential for abuse. The beats have been proven to modulate dopamine levels in users’ brains, similar to marijuana and the like. This shit is for real, and we’re only getting better at it.
Somewhat less trippy but considerably more popular is ASMR, the YouTube phenomenon known for its incredibly quiet, spatially-localized whispering, tapping and roleplay, for the purposes of relaxation, meditation or sleep. ASMR is a physiological response to certain audio triggers usually felt on the scalp, neck and spine. Not everybody experiences it, but over a million people watch these videos every day. After a certain virtual haircut went viral in 2007, the internet started to take notice of 3D sound, and you know how things go from there. Consumer-grade technology is now capable of high-quality binaural audio (and by “technology” I mean a severed robot ears), and now every jabroni with a webcam is getting in on it. Whoop-dee-doo!
While most binaural audio can be experienced using regular, everyday headphones, a new company called Nervana has taken it a step further. Their headphones release a tiny electric charge designed to stimulate your vagus nerve (which just so happens to connect your ear canal with your brain and your heart and your stomach). It can even be synchronized to your existing music, so that as your headphone’s tiny speaker pushes sound into your eardrum, your parasympathetic nervous system is electrocuted in time with the audio signal. No, it doesn’t hurt, and yes, it’s completely safe. People are electrocuted all the time. (Ever rub your feet on a carpet or a balloon in your hair? Static electricity can kill–you’ve been warned.) And even if it’s bad for you, guess what: it feels really good and leaves you feeling good for awhile. They are set to be released this spring, but you can preorder them starting on March 15th.
Or you can just keep living your life, blind to the wonders of the modern world. Science will be there regardless, advancing humanity one fun thing at a time.