Curl Up in This Giant Egg to Experience Sound Like an Unborn Baby

The Sonic Womb allows you to experience sound through your body as opposed to through your ears.

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May 17 2016, 9:30am

Left to right, Aurelie, Julian and Aude in front of the Orrb at Goldsmiths workshop. Image: Goldsmiths University

Researchers have made a giant egg-like contraption to recreate what it sounds like in the womb.

It might sound outlandish, but their aim is to help parents and medical practitioners understand the optimal sonic conditions for unborn and premature babies. Think the audio equivalent of an ultrasound scan.

Their creation—dubbed the "sonic womb"—comprises a sound system that mimics the womb's soundscape, allowing listeners to experience a mother's heartbeat and other vibrations from the outside world.

The system is embedded inside a glossy round pod (called the Orrb), which the listener sits in. The pod measures 1.7m in height and two metres in length and was originally designed as a wellness device by Goldsmiths alumnus Lee McCormack.

"What the listener hears inside the Orrb are the sounds as they are filtered by the mother's body," explained Julian Henriques, a sound artist and topology researcher at Goldsmiths department of media and communications, over the phone.

The researchers recorded the heartbeat sounds used in the project by inserting a microphone into a pregnant ewe's womb. There's also a lullaby sung by a mother and transmitted to the sonic pod as if it were travelling along her spinal column.

Image: Orrb Technologies

Henriques said that the object of the researchers' scientific investigations was to find out the effect of the human body on the sounds available to the foetus in the womb. All the sounds, he said, will be affected by the mother's stomach lining, for example. Foetuses usually start to experience sound after the second trimester, and hearing is the first sense that connects them to the outside world.

"One side of the project was to find out what exactly was available for the foetus to hear," explained Henriques. "The other side was developing a platform in which we as adults could hear these sounds."

To recreate the sounds found in the womb, the researchers lined the walls and reclining seat inside the Orrb with transducers that vibrate the surface of whatever they are attached onto rather than the air. The aim is for the listener to go into the pod with sound-blocking headphones and experience different frequencies directly on their body and skull through the vibrations created by the pod—just as a foetus would experience sound. You feel the sound as opposed to hearing it.

"The effect that the sound has is to take you back to where you came from"

Henriques said that some frequencies would be amplified while others dampened.

"What's so interesting is how that filtering gives the baby inside a special sound world. We found it's really important for their physiological development after the second trimester when their hearing is fully developed," said Henriques.

According to Eric Jauniaux, a foetal medicine specialist at the Institute of Women's Health at UCL, premature babies within incubators at hospitals are exposed to high frequency sounds that they would normally be protected from within the womb.

"These noises are known to make a premature baby more resistant to treatment. For example, if you stressed in an incubator you need more oxygen, and your heart rate will increase. You don't want to add any stress to a premature baby," said Jauniaux.

The researchers will be presenting their project at the Brain Forum in Switzerland later this month.

Henriques promises a "unique experience" for those curious to test out the Sonic Womb.

"The effect that the sound has is to take you back to where you came from. It's like hearing a favourite tune that came at a particular point in your teenage years as an adult and remembering that moment," said Henriques. "It's a moving experience."