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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Rensselaer Ph.D. Candidate Philip W. Robinson Awarded Fulbright Grant

July 14, 2011

Rensselaer Ph.D. Candidate Philip W. Robinson Awarded Fulbright Grant

Student To Conduct Research in Architectural Acoustics at Aalto University of Science and Technology in Helsinki, Finland

Philip W. Robinson, a Ph.D. student of the graduate program in architectural acoustics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been awarded a Fulbright grant to continue his research into the effects of architectural enclosures on listeners’ perception of sound. His research will take place at the Aalto University of Science and Technology in Helsinki, Finland.

Robinson received an M.Sc in architectural acoustics from Rensselaer in 2009 and a B.Arch. from Wentworth Institute of Technology in 2004. His work will further knowledge that will be used in acoustic applications from concert halls to home theaters to telecommunications systems.

“The auditory system has amazing abilities: we can localize sound within three degrees, we can distinguish between multiple sources in a room — for example, 10 to 20 talkers at a cocktail party,” Robinson said. “Architecture plays a role in how poorly or how well we can do any of these things. There’s a link between the physical production of sound, the architectural form, and the psychology of our perception.”

Rensselaer School of Architecture Dean Evan Douglis congratulated Robinson on his achievement.

‘It’s very exciting to hear that a doctoral candidate in the architectural acoustics department here at Rensselaer was awarded a 2011 Fulbright Grant,” Douglis said. “Philip W. Robinson not only brings recognition to the school and Institute at large, he also represents one of our future leaders in acoustics. His particular area of interest, ‘the sonic performance of architectural enclosures,’ plays a pivotal role in the current design of contemporary concert halls, theaters, and opera houses around the world. It’s an ever-increasing area of expertise for the profession of architecture that truly benefits from Philip’s unique insight as we consider the important role of sonic spaces for the 21st century.”

Sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Program provides funding for students, scholars, teachers, and professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and teaching in elementary and secondary schools.

The Fulbright Program is one of the most prestigious awards programs worldwide, operating in more than 155 countries. Forty-three Fulbright alumni have won Nobel Prizes and 78 have won Pulitzer Prizes. The program was established to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills.

Robinson said his research interest stems from projects he encountered as a professional architect — including a high school music suite and an apartment building with issues of sound transmission issues between units — that incorporated acoustic components. 

“I found as an architect that the most interesting problems were sound-related,” Robinson said. “RPI has a unique program in this regard — there are very few schools that teach acoustic architecture in any depth. RPI has a national reputation in the architectural acoustic realm.”

Sound produced inside any structure is transformed by the shape and material of the structure. Architects are necessarily concerned with how the sound is transformed, and therefore perceived by listeners. Acoustic architects seek to understand and manipulate how architectural enclosures transform sound to produce specific perceptual effects.

 “My research looks at how we can manipulate the enclosure to maximize the number of sources we can identify, or the accuracy of our localization, or how can we make speech most intelligible,” Robinson said.

One example of his research interest examines how sound reflection among different architectural surfaces influences the echo threshold.

“If sound bounces off a given surface at a particular delay, it becomes an echo. If we change the architectural surface, that delay changes,” Robinson explained. “Echoes are detrimental to speech intelligibility; they’re detrimental to the enjoyment of music. We’d like to know how the architectural surface impacts the echo threshold.”

Another example is in understanding how architectural surfaces affect the human ability to localize the source of sounds.

Both research interests have widespread applications in architectural venues that showcase sound, such as home theaters, conference rooms, and concert halls.

“If you have a surround sound system you can create a virtual architecture so that with video games, the sound changes to match the space,” Robinson said. “In a video conference call, you’d rather hear people from where they sit at the table; right now it feels like you’re talking to space rather than another person. If two people are on stage talking to each other, and you’re listening, you’d like to know which speaker is on the left and which is on the right. Understanding how architectural form influences the sound is essential to improving these experiences.” 

Robinson will begin his research in Helsinki in August 2011 and remain at the Aalto University of Science and Technology for two semesters. 

Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146