December 5, 2011 at 11:45 am

‘Inhuman Microphone’ App Circumvents Occupy Wall Street’s Megaphone Ban

One of the most recognizable hallmarks of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been its “human microphone,” a technique through which protesters make speeches louder without the use of megaphones, which are banned from the protests. (Amplifying sound outdoors requires a permit in New York.)

The concept behind the human microphone is simple: The crowd repeats in unison what the speaker has said, chanting each sentence in succession so that people further away can hear it. Depending on your point of view, it’s either inspiring or tiresome. The Inhuman Microphone does essentially the same thing — except it uses iPhones instead of human voices.

According to its creators, the use of hundreds or thousands of iPhone speakers rather than a single megaphone should be enough to get around New York’s ban on amplification, because no one would argue that a smartphone’s speaker would be covered by the ban. When these smartphones speak with one voice, as it were, they can not only increase the volume of the speaker’s voice, but spread it to locations throughout the protests.

David VellaHenrik Pettersson, Tom Leitch, and Tom Hannen built the Inhuman Megaphone at  this past weekend’s London Music Hack day event, where hacker types team up with each other to conceive and create functional music apps over the course of a single 24-hour period.

Here’s how it works: The speaker simply shouts their message into an iPhone running the Inhuman Megaphone app, which sends it to a server on the internet, then back down to the smartphones of other people at the protest. They would, presumably, turn their phones up to full volume, which would then repeat the speaker’s words.

The tricky part has to do with synchronizing all of those iPhones so that they play the speaker’s words at exactly the same time. According to the creators,

Network latencies meant that we couldn’t just fire the audio off as soon as the client received it — we have to ‘synchronize watches,’ as it were, so that they all trigger off at a given moment. This was achieved using Node, Socket.io, and some hack day time-sync-javacript-magic.

Luckily, you don’t need to understand how the Inhuman Microphone works in order to use it. Just like democracy.

Some critics of the OWS movement have wondered why people protesting against abuses by large corporations would use devices created by large corporations in their efforts. Surely, there’s a bit of irony there, and the spectacle of #OWS protesters holding aloft smartphones created by one of the biggest corporations in the world that are connected to the internet by wireless service from another massive corporation might give those people more to complain about.

Still, we can’t help but applaud this development on the strength of its ingenuity. It also makes us wonder which band will be first to employ it at a concert — for instance, they could send just the vocals, keyboard part, or anything else to all the iPhones at a venue, somewhat in the style of the Flaming Lips’ boombox experiment.

The presentation of the Inhuman Microphone from London Music Hack Day has some more information, or you can just try it yourself (as of right now, you can only join as a replayer):