Like most offices, the New York Times holds a lot of meetings. Editorial meetings, ad sales meetings, design meetings, you name it; all centered around a table seemingly for no other purpose than to have something to congregate around, take notes on, and–at worst–idly tap while bored meeting goers drift off into daydream.
So the New York Times decided to give its table a purpose. The Listening Table by NYT Labs (think here the New York Times’ own in-house equivalent of MIT’s Media Lab) is a smart conference table that is always listening to the conversations happening around it. And when users sit at the Listening Table and tap their fingers on it, they’re not bored: they’re dropping bookmarks, which the Table then collects into a transcript of the meeting’s most important moments.
The goal of the Lab within the New York Times, says the Labs’ Creative Director Alexis Lloyd, is to look at emerging technologies and behaviors, and then build them out into “tangible artifacts of the future that are relevant to news and media.”
For the Listening Table, the Lab found itself to drawn by the rise of pervasive electronic ears that can understand human speech, as seen in Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and even dedicated products like the Amazon Echo. In particular, the Lab wanted to see if it was possible to design an object that not only heard what was being said around it, but knew when what was being said was important or not.
At the same time, though, it was critical that the Listening Table not be viewed as a “sneaky spy,” Lloyd tells me, but a system with its “values built right in.” In other words, its industrial design is built to communicate that it’s an object to be trusted.
When people meet around the Listening Table, they immediately know it isn’t like a normal table. A large, omnidirectional microphone is integrated into the tabletop, and a ring of LED lights gently pulses to indicate, like Frasier Crane, “I’m listening.”
If that makes you uncomfortable, you can flip a switch–the only switch on the table–and it’ll stop. But if you do let the Listening Table eavesdrop on your meeting, there’s no need to take notes. Every time someone taps the table’s subtle capacitive strips, the Listening Table makes a note that what was just said is important, and at the end of the meeting, it sends out a machine transcript of the 30 seconds on either side of each tap, tagged with a list of about three keywords or phrases that the Listening Table thinks might have been most relevant to the conversation.
This functionality has a couple of benefits. For one, it means that as long as one person at a meeting is paying attention, the Listening Table can automatically give good notes. And if you miss a meeting, the Listening Table makes it easy to catch up with what was discussed.
But the Listening Table only listens ephemerally, forgetting what is said around it after four weeks. It’s designed to forget, says NYT Labs maker Noah Feehan, who was of critical importance to the creation of the Listening Table. By having just a four-week memory, users don’t have to worry that the Listening Table might betray their trust in unexpected ways: say, by turning over a lifetime statistical report to your boss on how many times you made a good point in the last year’s worth of meetings. The Listening Table is there to make your life easier, not give you one more surveillance system to worry about.
The industrial design for the Listening Table was done by Francois Chambard of UM Project. Read more about the New York Times‘ Listening Table here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Noah Feehan’s last name, and did not properly establish who he was at the NYT Labs. We also corrected a slight grammatical error in a quote attributed to Alexis Lloyd, and added credit to Francois Chambard for the Listening Table’s industrial design.