• HAL 9000 from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) (Warner Bros. Pictures)Source: Warner Bros. Pictures
Voice alerts rather than sound tones could get astronauts to respond faster in dangerous situations, according to new research.
Jacob Aron

New Scientist
24 Feb 2016 - 1:06 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2016 - 1:06 PM

Fire! Fire! Astronauts aboard the International Space Station may respond more quickly to human voice alerts than to other types of emergency sounds.

ISS crew are currently notified of dangerous events such as fires with specific sound tones, but in a high-stress situation it can be difficult to remember what they mean, says Aniko Sandor at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.

To see if voice alerts could prove more useful, Sandor and her colleague Haifa Moses ran a laboratory study asking participants to listen to both tone and speech alerts then click an icon representing the particular hazard. They found that people responded some 300 milliseconds faster to a speech alert, such as “Fire! Fire!”.

The pair also tested the different tones in a more realistic setting, the Human Exploration Research Analog at JSC, a modular habitat intended to simulate a space station or planetary base. Six participants had to react to alerts while carrying out another task, then respond by following a series of instructions to “solve” the problem by retrieving codes stashed somewhere in the habitat.

One person reacted to both kinds of alerts in similar time, but the other five were on average 5 seconds faster at reacting to speech alarms, suggesting that a voice alert system would improve safety on the ISS and other spacecraft. Sandor presented the results at a workshop on human space exploration in Galveston, Texas, earlier this month.

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