Opening Up Virtual Space


As the coronavirus began to shut down northern Italy, viewers from around the world took comfort in social media videos showing Italians singing to each other from balconies despite their confinement at home. In New York City, residents have taken to opening their windows and applauding healthcare workers for two minutes every evening, an audible show of solidarity for those on the front lines of the crisis. These and other cases show that sound can also play a positive role during a lockdown by connecting those trapped indoors with the wider world around them. Such examples might combat the irritating effects of unwanted sound, fostering social cohesion and tolerance instead. Besides these physical soundscape examples, there are ways in which existing virtual tools might leverage this ability to give hope to those in isolation.


In an analysis of Western worship spaces, Lubman and Kiser (2001) pointed out the trend of “electronic churches” via live television broadcasts of worship services. Televised broadcasts, once narrowly focused on housewives or the homebound, have already widened in their scope and audience over the past decades (Birdsall and Enns 2012). Since the arrival of COVID-19, a large portion of churches, synagogues, and mosques have scrambled to livestream their worship services where large gatherings are now prohibited. This vast increase in virtual online services makes Lubman and Kiser’s analysis all the more prescient: can there exist a shared space for virtual listeners in vastly different settings? 


Since humankind first explored caves and constructed stone temples, there has a been a sense that such spaces are “set apart” from everyday life (Boren 2017: 41-43). This is partly due to their visual characteristics, but also to their auditory soundscape: reflections that come back to us are highly decorrelated between our two ears, resulting in a sense of immersion and envelopment which is not experienced in a modest-sized living room (Kendall 1995: 71-87). As extended quarantines tend to lead to the atrophy of both community and one's sense of purpose, a regular rhythm of weekly entering into a different (virtual) space might help worshipers avoid the monotony presented by a long quarantine. However, many worship livestreams merely present the direct audio feed from a speaker's microphone, ensuring clarity but no sense of the envelopment that draws so many to worship in the first place. The obvious deficiencies in these livestreams relative to physical meetings has led some to predict that the pandemic will lead to a “religious recession” (Hollar 2020).


For services that are still able to access their physical space for a broadcast, spatialization could be as simple as using a stereo feed from a pair of microphones several rows back to preserve the auditory experience of that space. Since many faith leaders might need to livestream from their own homes under lockdown, this will not be an option. In this case faith communities might consider virtualizing their entire service: many video streaming services already offer options to impose virtual backgrounds onto a person in the foreground. Streaming services like YouTube and Facebook Live might consider offering an option for virtual acoustic backgrounds as well, adding the binaural response of a generic or specific space via real time convolution. 


More broadly, this issue should cause those working in teleconferencing software to consider the role of a shared virtual space for fostering community during a period of social isolation. Regular teleconferences have become a principal communication channel for what remains of the economy. For those who are living alone or who are not part of any religious tradition, the impact of such telepresence should not be underestimated.


Most teleconferencing systems have (understandably) optimized their platforms for clarity. Yet these still have far too much system latency to allow families to sing “Happy Birthday” together for a grandchild’s virtual birthday party, resulting in a chaotic soundscape that reifies the isolation that each participant is experiencing.


Instead of only pursuing a zero-latency interaction, which is currently technologically infeasible, Zoom, Skype, and other videoconferencing platforms might consider an optional headphone-only binaural rendering based on the visual field. Though this would increase system latency, it would also increase the user's perception of experiencing the same soundscape as others on the call (Boren and Genovese 2018).  In a period of extreme social distancing, society needs more virtual presence, even if it comes at the expense of perfect clarity.