Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory camera can see sound

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ByEric Thomas KGO logo
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Lawrence Berkeley camera can see sound
Engineers at Lawrence Berkeley Lab are bringing voices back to life with an extraordinary technology. It allows them to not only hear sound, but to actually see it.

BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory engineers are bringing voices back to life with an extraordinary technology. It allows them to not only hear sound, but to actually see it.

One of the most well-known of the voices is a native American known as Ishi. He wandered out of the wilderness in the early 1900's, and was believed to be the last survivor of a Northern California people known as the Yahi, Ishi was famously studied by researchers in the Bay Area, who wanted to capture his now-extinct language.

"He lived at the University of California for about four years, then he passed away. In that period of time these recordings were made," said Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicist Carl Haber, Ph.D.

The recordings were made on primitive wax cylinders. Now Haber and his team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are using a technology they developed to extract that audio from century old grooves. Instead of phonographic needles, it relies on a unique camera.

"We can now optically measure that undulation, that motion that was pressed upon it a hundred years ago," said Haber.

Engineer Earl Cornell, Ph.D., helped develop the sophisticated software that translates the readings taken by the camera into audio. Giving their system the power to literally "see" sound.

"We're collecting pictures that represent sound, yes," said Cornell.

The team is roughly halfway through a three-year project with the Hearst Museum and the U.C. Berkeley School of Linguistics, to digitize nearly three thousand cylinders. They hold the voices of native American speakers from around California as well as Ishi.

"There are languages in use, languages no living speakers and languages considered endangered," Haber pointed out.

Lynne Grigsby is with the University of California libraries and says the recordings could help native American communities recapture a rich part of their culture.

"So people have learned their languages and then taught their children a language," said Grigsby.

"They cover perhaps 50 different languages and a whole variety of materials," added Haber.

Voices of a distant past now echoing into the future.

To handle the enormous number of recordings the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory team adapted their system to read several cylinders at the same time.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.