January 16, 2006 Open plan offices have their strengths and weaknesses. Considered from the employee’s point of view, the biggest weakness is a lack of privacy, so we were particularly keen to take a look (listen) at (to) Sonare's new, next generation babble device. Babble was developed by Applied Minds to address the challenging issue of workplace confidentiality for phone conversations in any open workspace. Babble is a desktop device that connects inline between your desk phone and it's handset and sends the user’s voice out in multiplied and “babbled” form through proprietary speakers arranged in the work area. It achieves confidentiality without distracting the user of the device, and those in the user’s immediate area hear what sounds like an indiscernible, low-volume group conversation. The benefits of Babble go beyond the critical requirement of safeguarding information, contributing to increased productivity by allowing the user to have confidential telephone conversations at their workstation, where their computer and files are located.
We tried it at the Consumer Electronics Show, where there were lots of people around, so the conditions weren't ideal, but the device seemed to do a good job of masking what the user was saying. Indeed, apart from a few minor aspects, its hard to fault the Babble.
On the negative side of things, the device needs to be trained before use – perhaps that’s being picky, because privacy is so important, but it is a bother that it isn't speaker independent.
Overall, it solves the problem of securing a desk phone in a semi-public environment in a novel way, but the device is quite costly in it's current configuration. If it were more general purpose and did a better job of protecting all your conversations (instead of just phone calls from your desk) then paying US$400 a seat might be worth it.
The product is available in the U.S. now at a retail price of US$395 for the desktop device and two sets of speakers (US$115 for additional speakers), and can be purchased initially through select Herman Miller contract office dealers, as well as direct through Sonare’s website.