This year’s IgNobel prize in Acoustics went to Kruihara and Tsukada, of Japan, for an invention straight out of a sci fi movie: The SpeechJammer.

(clip from Spaceballs: we’ve been Jammed!)

Have you ever had to listen to someone who just won’t. Shut. Up. Have you ever been stuck in a library or on the quiet car of a train, giving passive aggressive dirty looks to talkative passerby? Well suffer no more from lack of silence! This speechjammer will solve all of your problems, using the power of SCIENCE.

(Also comes in handheld!)

How does it work? How do you stop other people from talking without going “SHH!”. What you need is delayed auditory feedback. When we speak, we not only generate sound, but we rely on auditory feedback to make sure that what we are saying is coming out right. If we suffer problems with auditory feedback, such as a very short delay between the production of speech and hearing it, we will begin to stutter and eventually come to a stop.

So all you have to do if you want to shut someone up is induce some delayed auditory feedback. The designers of this device invented a microphone hooked up to a speaker, aimed at the person chattering (in the portable version, this looks a lot like those guns they use to track whether or not you’re speeding on the highway). The microphone records the chatter and induces a small delay (which you can control, depending on the distance from your target, so you get the maximal interference), and then plays your own voice back at you.

They even let me test it! And I have to say it's a very disconcerting experience. As one of the authors noted, we really don't like the sound of our own voice talking over us.

So what would be use of such a device? Well, apart from the obvious uses by passive aggressive people in quiet spaces, the author propose a potential use for helping to moderate things like group debate. When you need someone to shut up and given someone else a turn, you can turn the SpeechJammer on them and watch them lapse into silence. The psychological effects of the SpeechJammer on the person who want quiet should be pretty positive. But the psychological effects on those made to shut remains to be seen.