ANGELES – David Tobin took to the stage at a recent
technology conference in downtown Los Angeles, asked the
500 attendees to close their eyes, and turned up the
sound so they could sample his wares: a textured,
layered soundscape that he calls an "audiojack."
thousand eyes clamped shut as they collectively heard a
ball thudding into a glove. A cracking bat. Fans roaring
with approval. "How does what you’re hearing make
you feel? What does it make you remember? There are no
right or wrong answers," Tobin told the group, who’d
gathered for demonstrations and discussions on how
technology can improve the lives of our rapidly aging
population. "It’s all up to you to imagine,"
back our imaginations from an onslaught of words,
images, video and other stimuli is Tobin’s goal with
his business, Audiojack, so named, he says, because he
hopes listeners will get "jacked" by the
former television producer and one-time manager of the
famous Roxy Theater on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, Tobin
happened on the idea by accident. After a friend gave
him a hard drive that contained a folder of sound
effects. Just for fun, Tobin mixed them with no apparent
plot or structure, leaving out any human voices. He
found that friends who listened to his creation started
"putting together a story instantly because your
brain associates the sound with memory," he said.
he shared it with his mother, a teacher, who brought it
into her classroom and saw that kids seemed particularly
engaged after a listening session. When a friend sampled
it for his mother, who in turn played the soundscape for
dementia patients she cared for at a senior center,
Tobin began to realize he’d made something that had
broad appeal and a useful application.
citizens with even the most advanced memory loss have
powerfully responded to his product. One elderly
listener who’d not spoken a complete sentence in weeks
was able to articulate memories triggered by the sound
of cooking breakfast or of a tiger in the wild.
received similar encouragement from educators and
students at the Perkins School for the Blind in
Watertown, Mass., who asked him to make more audiojacks,
and even invited him in for a group session. Students
worked in an on-campus studio to make their own
"movie for the mind."
has not yet conducted formal research into the efficacy
of his sound recordings, but researchers in Canada have
found that aural stimulation engages older people with
memory loss, helping them to be more connected to their
well-understood are the benefits of music therapy, which
has been shown in extensive patient studies at Harvard
University and Oxford University to achieve reduced
stress, and improved mood and social function, as well
as regulated heartbeat and breathing. One program,
SingFit, offers music playlists with lyric prompts
specially designed to engage older people and others
with traumatic brain injury.
can cite one study by George Mason University that shows
improved brain function for people with moderate to
severe dementia who used the program over a four-month
period. Fernando Roman at the city-funded Echo Park
Senior Center just outside downtown Los Angeles has seen
this with his work. During the sessions he holds every
few weeks, he hands out paper to each attendee, makes
sure the room is quiet, and afterward asks them to share
what images and feelings the soundscapes have stirred
up. Though they’re far from the Siberian tundra, much
less the woods, the seniors listen and reflect.
get to see the wide range of where everyone’s mind is
at," Roman said. The fact that there are no spoken
words makes it accessible to his multi-lingual
teacher Michele Mazzei at Edison High School in Fresno,
Calif., has seen particular impact with all of her
students, but particularly one boy with autism.
Typically, he was silent, she said, but when she played
one of Tobin’s creations, he instantly responded.
"He perked up, spoke, and pointed out what he
heard," she said. "It got him to be part of
sells the audiojacks for institutional use with lesson
plans and prompts, but it’s also available to
individual users in mobile app form. There’s one free
available in each category, and an annual subscription
costs $14.99. Lately, he said, he’s seen a surge in
downloads and mail from users who like listening to them
for no other reason than to space out. Consider it an
active form of meditation, where you can choose to
imagine any visuals you like or none at all.
considers it the antithesis to virtual reality, another
popular form of tech-mediated experience. "VR is so
stimulating," he said. "You’re locked in,
your eyes are peeled, you can’t get away from it.
Here, you close your eyes and do it on your terms."