“What did the Black Forest sound like in the 1950s?”

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Sound filtering down from the sunshade: the DIDEM team has a first "sound sunshade" in use in the partnering senior citizens' home in St. Georgen.

In the DIDEM research project, sound worlds are developed for dementia patients

"The interesting thing about sound is that it is completely underestimated," says Professor Dr Norbert Schnell. "If you get the basics right, it's a real 'Oooh' experience; if you don't, you might not really notice what it is, but you don't feel quite right." It is exactly this aspect of well-being that the DIDEM project, "Digital Technologies for the Care of People with Dementia," funded by the Carl Zeiss Foundation, addresses. The professor of music design is head of the sub-project to develop and evaluate sound and music-related media for those suffering from dementia.

Schnell is enthusiastic about interdisciplinary collaboration – in DIDEM he cooperates with colleagues from other faculties who, for example, come from the field of nursing and have a different perspective on needs-based technical solutions for the care of people with dementia. "If you do research for dementia patients, you have to have direct contact with the target group," Schnell says. That’s why the DIDEM team is working with several nursing homes in the region. "Our goal is to work with those affected to find out what works and what doesn't," Schnell says.

His approach in the research project –  if a dementia patient is introduced to the right sound world, this not only helps the person feel better, it can also trigger memories or make conversations and thoughts possible. The question is, which sound world is the "right" one? "We collect sounds in a kind of sound library that, when combined, become a very individual listening experience," Schnell explains. So, for example, take forest sounds like rustling leaves and birdsong. "And then you can say, we need some people to walk through there now, so corresponding step and voice sounds are added - or it starts to rain," Schnell says. The researcher works with colleagues who "collect" sounds for him in cities and alpine meadows, in the home or in church. "We try to answer questions such as, 'What did the Black Forest sound like in the 1950s or 1960s?" explains Schnell - because that's when many in the target group spent their childhood and youth in the region. What does hay tossed by hand sound like? How many mopeds rattled through the neighbourhood back then? Were there more cowbells in the '50s? "We're not creating whitewashed ideal worlds," emphasises Professor Schnell, "sound can also be unpleasant and demanding at times, but it shouldn't trigger feelings of anxiety."

Immersive soundscapes for dementia patients

The next challenge after "capturing and recording sounds" is to develop suitable technology so they can be reproduced in an immersive sound environment, "but not one where it feels like the sounds are blaring out of a loudspeaker," says the sound expert. Schnell's theory, which is already proving to be correct – the more speakers, the better. And, of course, each should emit a different sound.

Professor Schnell already has experience in creating sound worlds. One of the “sound domes” he has developed is available in the Faculty of Digital Media at Furtwangen University, where it is possible to escape the everyday flood of media images and relax simply by listening. The creative centre "Die Halle" in Schwenningen uses the same idea to encourage innovative ideas in entrepreneurs through providing a new thinking environment.

For dementia patients, however, there is a need for very specific sounds and there are special requirements. Schnell and his team have already developed a "sound screen" where sounds from seven different loudspeakers filter down to two seats below. "The whole thing was wrapped in an attractive sunshade for the senior citizens of St. Georgen so that it wouldn't look like a spider from Mars," Schnell laughs.

Despite all the technical possibilities, one thing is clear to him – such a product must, above all, be as simple as possible to use. "If the nursing staff has half an hour to spare, they shouldn't waste any of it on time-consuming equipment set up," says Schnell. That's why the sound worlds should be intuitively accessible via mobile devices. As an alternative to the usual displays, Schnell also wants to develop a kind of "game board" with picture cards which trigger corresponding sounds.

In workshops with the target group, Schnell and the DIDEM team will monitor the acceptance of these ideas on a continual basis. "The sound worlds can of course also be combined with aspects of music and movement," he says, depending on what the individual responds to best. With endless customisation possibilities, Schnell’s expectations from the research results are clear, "You have to win each soul individually."

More information on the DIDEM research project can be found here: https://didem.hs-furtwangen.de

Experience a sound world: Take a walk in the forest!