Monday, June 8, 2015

"Pew Pew" laser sounds become a sci-fi self-fulfilling prophecy

Military contractors are adding the sound effects from old sci-fi movies and television shows to their laser weapons. While laser weapons are for the most part naturally silent, you want a way for operators of these weapons to know they are on. Not knowing your laser weapon is currently firing can be very dangerous to the user. It makes sense to use a distinctive noise that people already associate with laser weapons, like the “pew pew” sound first heard in B-movies.

This means that people who criticized sci-fi movies for giving their laser weapons sound were thinking too narrowly. While the physics of the laser weapon don’t make these noises, these weapons will in the future make them as a safety measure.

This is not the first time sci-fi has created a self-fulfilling prophecy for sound or visual effects, and it won’t be the last. Rocket launch countdowns were first used in sci-fi movies as a way to visualize or provide a dramatic sound effect for the concept of merely waiting for a launch, decades before the idea was adopted by NASA.

As technology makes our world more digital and less filled with natural mechanical noise, I suspect we are going to look to movies for even more inspiration on what effects we should add to indicate something is actually working. After all, movie production companies have always been experts at giving the silent a seemingly appropriate sound, at making the invisible visible, at creating a way to see an abstract concept. That is their job.

Perhaps in the far future if we ever build a warp drive, whenever it is activated the ship’s monitors will display white streaks like in Star Trek. Even though the actual view would be complete blackness, it is a quick and obvious way to indicate to everyone on board: remember, you are in warp drive.
*By Joost J. Bakker from IJmuiden (Space Pilot X Ray GunUploaded by Oxyman) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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