If You Think Restaurants Are Too Loud, This Is Your New App To Fight Back

By Julia Belluz / Posted on September 29, 2018

So many urban spaces, from the gym to the subway system, have become unbearably loud. And this din is slowly degrading our hearing in subtle, irreparable ways.

One space where it can be especially frustrating to be forced to shout is a restaurant. Both Zagat and Consumer Reports surveys have found that excessive noise is the chief complaint diners have — ahead of service, crowds, or even food issues. Not being able to hear the people we’re dining with can make connecting painfully difficult.

Now there’s an app to help people who are struggling to find a quiet place to eat or drink. It’s called SoundPrint, and it’s basically Yelp for noise levels in thousands of restaurants, bars, and cafes across America (and counting).

But most exciting is the fact that SoundPrint runs off citizen science. The app has a decibel reader, and its noise reviews are generated by SoundPrint users, who can submit their decibel readings — from quiet and moderate to loud and very loud. Most venues registered on the app have volumes that are not conversation-friendly or could be deafening.

I wanted to learn more about SoundPrint, which is currently in stealth mode and will officially launch in May 2018, so I called its creator, Greg Scott*.

Scott, like nearly 40 million American adults, is hard of hearing. His experience has inspired him to become a champion for all the people who have ever strained to hear their companions in a restaurant. In a conversation over FaceTime, so Greg could lip-read, I learned about the patterns he’s discovered in his SoundPrint data, including the types of restaurants that are the loudest and which to avoid, and how he manages to find quiet spots even in cities his app doesn’t yet cover.

Hearing loss is sometimes described as an invisible handicap because many people live with it but we can’t see it and don’t always know it’s there. And so we underappreciate the challenges people who are hard of hearing face.

It requires a lot of mental energy and focus throughout your entire body. Leaning forward, trying to separate what is noisy from what is the person saying. You hear fragments of what they’re saying. It’s like the show Wheel of Fortune.

It’s hard enough when there’s no background noise, but when you add excessively loud background noise, you’re constantly guessing. And your chances of mishearing somebody go up.

Sometimes it’s harder to connect with people — you think they said [something] but you’re not sure. It’s just frustrating. Even pain in one’s shoulders because due to constantly leaning in to figure out what people are saying.

A lot of people with hearing loss feel socially isolated, especially if they didn’t grow up with it. They don’t want to recognize it or have a hard time telling people about it.

Greg Scott, who created the app, say this, “I live in New York City, and I wanted to be able to hear my dates, to connect with them. I would go to Google and Yelp and search for “quiet” in the user comments. I had a list of places, 10 to 20. But most of the time, these places would not be quiet at all. So I started taking out a decibel meter because I wanted to see how loud [these venues were]. Maybe it was me; maybe I was losing my hearing. I found out the noise levels were too high — not conducive to conversation — and that they can endanger the hearing health of venue employees and patrons. So I created this quiet list and started sharing it with friends, some in the hearing loss community, some normal-hearing friends. I was traveling home one week [to California], visiting my mom. She said, “Where do you want to go out to dinner?” I said, “Someplace quiet so we can talk.” She asked if I knew of a quiet place, and I said no. I knew them in New York.”

Then same SoundPrint, basically a decibel meter and made it crowdsourceable.

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