Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Mosquito Ringtone

I remembered reading about this a couple of years ago when I was describing it to a couple of people who have not heard or knew about it at all. But I couldn't remember what the name / reference of this "teenagers-only could hear" audio. So I started to look it up, and wanted to write about this technological ingenuity, its history, etc.

This technology was marketed back in 2005 as an ultrasonic teenager repellent, an ear-splitting 17-kilohertz (17.4KHz, to be exact) buzzer designed, by British inventor Howard Stapleton with Welsh security company Compound Security Systems, to help shopkeepers disperse young people loitering in front of their stores while leaving adults unaffected. Basically, the idea was meant to drive away teens through ultra high frequency sounds much like how a dog whistle would affect dogs.

“The Mosquito”, as the product was named, took advantage of a curious medical fact that most people are unaware of. The principle behind it is a biological reality that hearing experts refer to as presbycusis (a more accurate source here), or aging ear.

Hearing High Tones
While most human communication takes place in a frequency range between 200 and 8,000 hertz (a hertz being the scientific unit of frequency equal to one cycle per second), most adults' ability to hear frequencies higher than that begins to deteriorate in early middle age.

"It's the most common sensory abnormality in the world," said Dr. Rick A. Friedman, an ear surgeon and research scientist at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.

But in a bit of techno-jujitsu, someone — a person unknown at this time, but probably not someone with presbycusis — realized that the Mosquito, which uses this common adult abnormality to adults' advantage, could be turned against them.

As with any inventive good idea, sooner or later someone is going to use it for something other then the original intended purpose. In this case, some equally inventive teens in the inventor’s hometown (Birmingham) caught on to what the company was doing and decided to put turn the idea into something they could use. They took the ultra sonic frequency and converted into to a cell phone ringtone which they aptly named “Teen Buzz”. As such, the “adult proof” ringtone known as the mosquito ringtone was born. The ringtone immediately caught on like wildfire in the UK, and has since quickly spread throughout the reaches of the Internet to teens everywhere. Teens learned they could hear each others phones ringing at school but their teachers couldn’t. The ringtone goes by many different names including Teen Buzz, Mozzy Tone, Mosquito Ringtone, Ultra Sonic Ringtone, and others. It has been used in several TV series here in the United States as well as in this (below) very clever KFC TV Commercial.

In April of 2007, KFC Featured the Mosquito Ringtone in a type of viral interactive commercial. They were giving away (1000) $10 gift cards to the first thousand people that could correctly state at what point in the commercial the ultra sonic sound was played. I don’t know if it is part of the YouTube conversion process, but it’s pretty obvious where the sound is played.

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMWqIeb7b6g

"Our high-frequency buzzer was copied. It is not exactly what we developed, but it's a pretty good imitation," said Simon Morris, marketing director for Compound Security Systems, the company behind the Mosquito. "You've got to give the kids credit for ingenuity."

Since then, Mr. Morris said his company has received so much attention — none of it profit-making because the ring tone was in effect pirated — that he and his partner, Howard Stapleton, the inventor, decided to start selling a ring tone of their own. It is called Mosquitotone, and it is now advertised as "the authentic Mosquito ring tone."

To many, this whole notion of a group of people being able to hear something while another older one cannot is all hard to believe. But I assure you it's real. Here's a video that demonstrates this:

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrewnzQYrPI

This ring tone comes in different KHz. Some are designed to not be heard by those above 50, or those above 40, or those above 30 and so on and so forth, give or take a few years. Its applications may go beyond teenagers and their cellphones at school. Can you think of an application or two? Share them with us in the comments.  ▣

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