The internet, once largely a visual phenomenon, has become increasingly audio-driven. How does the added dimension of sound change the way we use it, and what concerns about privacy does the use of audio create?

In this episode of the EIU Digital Economy, aspects of the audible internet are explored by Jennifer Allum, head of GOV.UK, the UK government’s public information site; Ben Sauer, director of conversation design at digital health startup Babylon Health; and Dr. Lorenzo Picinali, senior lecturer in audio experience design at Imperial College London.

We use vision as a primary means of navigating, says Picinali, which helps explain why the internet began as a sight-oriented medium. We can grasp visual images quickly, he notes, but audio plays an important supplementary role. Audio is very useful when we have many things to process at once, and it is a 360-degree medium, allowing us to hear behind us.

“We can compare two things better in audio as opposed to vision,” Picinali says, citing the example of the audible beep now used in cars to help drivers gauge how close they are to an object behind them.

Audio offers value that is quite different from visual experience in other ways as well. As Ben Sauer explains, voice-driven applications can make patients feel more comfortable in seeking information about their health.

“For many decades now, we’ve been working the way that computers want us to work. And now we have a semireliable channel which works the way that we’ve been working,” says Sauer. “It feels more intimate, which is very appropriate to healthcare. You can potentially feel a bit more cared for and develop a little bit more of a trust with it eventually than you could with a screen interaction. But there’s a long way to go to earn that trust, and that’s one of the things we’re working on.”

Recent news reports have underscored those concerns, revealing that audio may be captured and stored by smart speakers at times when users are unaware. Of further concern is the fact that these devices are managed by large tech companies whose stance on privacy is not always clear. As GOV.UK’s Jennifer Allum explains, these are factors that are considered as the UK government opens up information to audio-driven applications.

“We take a channel-agnostic approach,” she says. “This is about preparing our store of information for wherever the user wants to be. And we believe that voice is one of those channels we must support. We know that some users do have privacy concerns about voice technology, and we would not make something available via those channels that was not otherwise available.”

Designing effective applications for an audible internet requires a different perspective on the user experience, Sauer says. When you design a screen, you can dictate how users interact, but audio applications are far different. “I liken screen interactions to a bridge,” he says. “It’s very solid, you have handrails on the sides, and you can know exactly where you’re going. I liken a voice interaction to something a bit more like a tightrope. It’s wobbly. It can break very easily if somebody comes into the room and starts speaking. An audio environment is very chaotic compared to using a screen.”

Despite the technical challenges, applications for audio are advancing rapidly. Picinali anticipates that in the not-too-distant future, virtual sounds and real sounds will blend perfectly. “I think we will be there in 10 years of being able to reproduce a sound, and the [listener] will not be able to say whether it’s a real sound coming from the environment around them or is a sound that has been created virtually and doesn’t exist in the environment. And so that will open up a lot more things.”

For more about the audible internet, voice-driven applications and the UK government’s perspective, tune in to the full episode of EIU Digital Economy podcast.

Read the transcript to The Digital Economy – The audible internet podcast.