Yesterday, while touring a new building on Microsoft's campus, I came across an anechoic chamber: A room designed to eliminate all noise from outside—and in. I spent about 5 minutes locked inside, and man is it freaky.
The chamber is actually its own "box-in-box" building, like the Time Warner Center's Rose Theater. It rests on a cushion of massive springs and is linked to the rest of the building with a metal gangway and nylon netting (so you don't fall down into the gap). There are two doors, massive ones that were, according to my guide, "a huge pain to install." When I went to close one, I was startled by its resistance.
Inside, it's like the Star Trek version of the proverbial padded room, with wedges that act as sound and RF-proofing. The second massive door is covered with these, so when it is closed, the only way to tell where the exit is is the almost-hidden release lever. The "floor" isn't a floor at all: The real floor has to be covered with the same sound-damping wedges, so you actually stand on a mesh trampoline. (Good thing I didn't wear my high heels.)
The company who built it, Eckel Industries, also built Steve Orfield's lab in Minneapolis, Guinness-certified as the quietest place on earth, at around -9dBA. Microsoft says that theirs measures something quite similar to this, except on the very lowest end, where it's really hard to eliminate unwanted sound.
Since I entered the chamber with two other people, the first thing I noticed was how voices changed. They became clipped, truncated, like someone was holding the mute pedal down on a piano. The subtle atmosphere and depth associated with room reverberation that we come to expect when hearing the human voice was totally gone. No echoes, hence the term "anechoic." My own voice sounded like it was having trouble coming out of my head.
For a moment, I felt genuine disorientation, like the light-headedness you can get with low blood sugar. The guy who showed me the room said that, even though he works in there a lot, he still has moments when he loses his balance, because the ear uses sound reflections—in addition to inner-ear leveling—to position the head and body.
Microsoft uses this newly built chamber to test all kinds of hardware products—microphones on webcams, audio outputs on Zunes, even the clicking of buttons on just about anything—because if you want to hear a sound clearly, this is where you go. They bring in the Xbox and PS3 to see which one wheezes the loudest, and some people have already inquired about squeezing the slim PS3 in for a quick listen, to see what's changed. (Needless to say, Microsoft wouldn't make the results of this test public.)
I have heard that being in an anechoic chamber for too long can drive you mad, and now that I've stood in one, gently bouncing on the wire-frame trampoline, staring at the pointy sci-fi wedges and hearing nothing but the blood rushing in my head, I believe it.