It sounds inviting. Peaceful. Maybe even idyllic. But experiencing it can be more nightmare than nirvana.
In 2005, the Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis the “Quietest Place on Earth.” The nation’s only certified anechoic chamber in an independent lab, it is a room within a room within a room; the innermost chamber is lined with 3.3-foot-thick fiberglass acoustic wedges and floats on I-beams and springs. Both inner rooms have double walls of insulated steel; the outside walls are foot-thick concrete. The background noise level is minus 9.4 decibels. In this room, even a dog is deaf to the world outside.
The total absence of sound outside your body makes you keenly aware of what’s going on inside your body. Your heart pumps. Your lungs inflate and deflate. Your ears buzz. Your blood pulses. In an anechoic chamber, you are one noisy organism. With no reverberation in the room, you have no spatial orientation cues. After about half an hour in the dark, you can become disoriented. Eventually, you might experience visual and aural hallucinations.
The anechoic chamber doesn’t exist as a kind of engineering curiosity. The researchers at Orfield Labs use it to test products such as hearing aids, automotive parts, heart valves, hard drives, and sleep-apnea machines.
“The chamber is a large part of our current PR,” says Steve Orfield, the company’s founder and president. “But it’s really a modest part of our overall business.”
Half of Orfield Labs’ business is in “corporate research,” which includes market and product-performance research for clients in a wide range of industries: biomedical (Medtronic, Respironics), industrial (Graco, Nilfisk-Advance, Kohler), audiological (various hearing-aid firms), transportation (Cessna, Northwest Airlines), consumer products (Whirlpool, Harley-Davidson, Black & Decker, Ford, 3M, Ariens, Herman Miller, Select Comfort), and government (the cities of Minneapolis and Richfield).
The other half of the business involves what’s called architectural consulting. It’s an area that Steve Orfield is particularly passionate about. “All over the United States, we’ve got these outrageously stupid buildings that achieve nothing,” he says. “They’re just containers! So much of architecture today has nothing to do with people.”
What Orfield Labs does is test not only how products perform but how people perform when they use them—or work or live beside or inside them. “We’re the nation’s only multidisciplinary perceptual consulting lab,” Orfield says. What does this mean? Well, that’s complicated. Orfield Labs is a business with many rooms.