Examining and Diagnosing: visualization and sound

Sound has been used extensively by artists to transmit the vitality and the complexity of their body to a wider audience. however, it is not utilized very often by the scientist or by the clinician, unless we consider the sound uttered by the process of machines such as MRI or other high tech diagnostic instruments. What Dolores and David Steinman have been exploring in the past year is how sound can be indeed utilized not only to understand crucial states of artery flow, but also to communicate such finding to the clinician and to the patient. still in its nascent phase, the Steinman’s research at the University of Toronto has involved a long-distance scientific collaboration started at last year Subtle Technologies. Dolores and David met scientists and sonification experts Valentina Margara and Riccardo Castagna during a presentation of their work on sonifying viruses, and immediately booked an appointment with their resident postdoc Diego Gallo, who   coincidentally is originally based in the same city, Turin. This generated a collaboration that involved  long hours of skype meetings between Toronto and Turin and some preliminary results that were surprisingly impressive for us in the audience and for them as well.

During a early conversation with Dolores, I asked her what was her assessment of using sound in this fashion: does sound provide a more accurate clue of the state of artery flow? What is its added value? isn’t visualization enough to detect trends in the blood flow? She responded with a case study:  an experiment that involved three teams of scientists looking at the conditions of a patient presented them with three scenarios: the first team was given data and images to analyze; the second was given images and sound; the third was only provided with sound. surprisingly, the latter was the one able to come out with the fastest and most immediate results. What happened? the hypotheses are many. However, there is a possibility that in certain circumstances images might be a bit too detailed. in addition, in a situation of team work, different people may have different interpretations about the same images. Conversely, sound goes straight to the brain, its flow immediately captured as a whole, so to give an immediate general idea of the motion of blood. Of course, the use of sound alone is problematic: what kind of sound to associate to the data retrieved? Is sound subjected to different interpretations too or can sound influence the clinician or the patient’s perception? what are the ethics involved in this use of sound? these are all questions that D & D are asking on a daily basis and that will likely occupy them for a while.

Aside from the ethical and cultural issues raised by this experiment, this project brought up the notion of collaboration both between different forms of expressions (sound, images, data) and between different practitioners who sometimes sit in different parts of the world. here the situation was facilitated by the fact that the people involved in this dialogue were all sharing in part a similar scientific language: while Ricardo and Valentina have been working on sonification for a long time, they both have strong background in science and engineering. still collaboration involves different parties who constantly negotiate their territory.

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