Enjoying the World Cup Without Vuvuzelas, and How It May Change TV

Last Updated Jun 21, 2010 10:22 AM EDT

For South African soccer fans the vuvuzela, a plastic horn, has become a symbol of the nation's passion for the game. But for the millions of viewers around the world watching the World Cup on TV, the vuvuzelas sound more like a swarm of giant insects, replacing the cheers and songs in the stadium with an irritating drone. The debate over banning vuvuzelas has become a controversy for FIFA, and created a boom in audio technology aimed at silencing the horns.

How-to sites like Lifehacker have posted detailed videos explaining how to eliminate the vuvuzela from audio recordings with a complicated set of EQ tricks. Noise busters also include fly by night operations like the eponymous Antivuvuzelafilter.com, where frustrated football fans can download an MP3 that inverts the sound of the air horn. Playing this track back at full volume acts as a sort of audio jammer, canceling out the buzz.

A more professional solution comes from the French firm Audionamix. "We were watching the WorldCup with the rest of the world, and found our enjoyment of the experience hindered by the loud drone created by the blowing of thousands of the vuvuzelas," said CEO Olivier Attia. "Our Audionamix engineers immediately went into to the lab and emerged 48 hours later with a solution that removes the higher frequencies created by the festive instrument."

With some minor variations the vuvuzelas produce a low B-flat tone at about 230 Hz. The engineers at Audionamix were able to isolate this frequency and strip it out of the broadcast while leaving everything else intact. The company has provided their service to the French channel Canal+ and has received interest from other stations around the world.

But some broadcasters, like Britain's BBC, are wary of appearing culturally insensitive. Their solution is to leave the choice in the hands of viewers, possibly by adding a button to digital service that allows viewers to mute vuvuzelas as they see fit.

If that happens, the vuvuzela dilemma will have opened a Pandora's box. Once viewers are able to block out certain sounds, they may want to add the feature for other programs to cancel out annoying theme music or mute a particularly insensitive host. Upcoming platforms like Google (GOOG) TV will be able to monetize this directly through an app market, much like the ones that exist for phones today. Television may never be the same again.

Image from Flickr user FlowComm

  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.