Feeling the Melody with Music: Not Impossible

Developed to help people who are deaf to enjoy live music, Music: Not Impossible haptic wearables could transform concerts for everyone.

Cameron Coward
9 months agoWearables / Music / Communication
Music: Not Impossible wearable haptic vests

Originally developed to help people who are deaf to enjoy live music, Music: Not Impossible wearable haptic feedback vests could transform the concert experience for everyone.

Addressing absurdities

Mick Ebeling founded Not Impossible Labs to address absurdities in the world — especially those that disproportionately affect people with disabilities. These people often have a hard time finding technology that solves the basic living challenges that they face, much less “unnecessary” technology that allows them to experience the joys that non-disabled people take for granted.

Not Impossible Labs strives to develop technology that improves the lives of people with disabilities, whether those people need that technology for their basic needs or for pure entertainment. A wheelchair, for instance, is a necessity for many people. But giving someone access to a wheelchair isn’t enough for them to experience the same joys as a person that can walk without aid.

It isn’t always possible to provide equivalent experiences to those with disabilities, but Not Impossible Labs seeks out opportunities where they exist. For example, their Project Bishop is innovative sonic localization technology that lets visually impaired skateboarders navigate skate parks with their ears.

Music: Not Impossible

Music: Not Impossible is a legacy project that has now been spun out as its own company. We talked with Music: Not Impossible co-founded and CTO Daniel Belquer about how this wearable technology lets people with hearing disabilities feel the music at live concerts. It also has the potential to expand the concert experience for non-disabled people by stimulating an additional sense.

The Music: Not Impossible team worked with Avnet engineers to develop this project’s key technology. That includes the Vibrotextile wearable haptic feedback systems, zero-latency wireless transmission, and algorithms to translate sound into high-resolution vibrations.

They first unveiled this project at a special invite-only concert featuring Greta Van Fleet during 2018’s Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas. Since then, Music: Not Impossible and Avnet engineers have continued to refine the technology and prepare it for mass production and distribution.

Meet Music: Not Impossible

From the perspective of a concert-goer, taking advantage of Music: Not Impossible is as simple as donning the haptic feedback wearables. Those consist of a lightweight vest, wrist units, and ankle units.

In the past, someone with a hearing disability might have tried to stand near a speaker to feel some of the musical vibrations. But that results in muddled “sound” without any distinction between instruments or vocals. By providing haptic feedback at many locations on the wearer’s body, concert-goes can feel each instrument as a unique sensation; they can feel the beat of the bass drum and distinguish it from the strumming of a guitar.

Designing the experience

Performers and music venues can decide how best to implement Music: Not Impossible technology in a concert. They can choose between one of three integration methods: real-time processing, pre-designed patterns synced to a performance, or a complete multi-sensory experience created by the Not Impossible team.

The first is the easiest and most affordable method. Either the venue or the performers themselves would purchase the Music: Not Impossible system. The transmitter unit connects to the sound system’s mixer and automatically translates the audio signals into vibration patterns. This doesn’t require any additional work on the part of the performers or sound engineers and users will feel the vibrations within 30ms — a time delay below human perception.

Mandy Harvey's Music: Not Impossible experience as a deaf musician

The second method gives engineers the ability to tailor the haptic experience in the same way that they might coordinate and sync stage lighting or pyrotechnics. That lets them create the precise feeling they envision, rather than relying solely on automated algorithms. As an example, they might want to over-emphasize the bass at an EDM concert by vibrating all of the wearable units simultaneously.

The third method is much like the second, but designed by the Music: Not Impossible team. This is ideal for performers and venues that want to take advantage of the experience of those engineers to create a very unique concert.

Overcoming technical challenges

Technical details may change as Music: Not Impossible gets closer to production, but we do know that the wearables receive vibration commands through LoRa transceivers. They’ve tested those at festivals where people were as far away as half a mile from the stage and didn’t have any problems. LoRa is capable of transmitting over greater distances than that, but that wouldn’t be necessary for a concert.

The wearable units utilize STMicroelectronics microcontrollers, though the team hasn’t settled on exact models for production. A complete set of Music: Not Impossible wearables have battery life up to 10 hours, which is enough for even the most staminal concert-goers.

At this time, the Music: Not Impossible team and Avnet engineers have overcome the technical challenges of the project. From here, its success will rely on the logistics of production and implementation, along with public acceptance.

Reaching the audience

The benefit for people with hearing disabilities is obvious, but Music: Not Impossible also wants wider audiences to experience this new way of feeling music. That wider acceptance is important for two reasons. First, it would help those with hearing disabilities feel more comfortable wearing Music: Not Impossible vests, as they wouldn’t stand out. Second, it gives music venues a greater incentive to purchase the technology, because they won’t feel as though they are making the investment just to cater to a small portion of the population.

We firmly believe that once a person gets exposed to these experiences, it is easier to spread it as it becomes a new layer that people start missing once they don't have it anymore. — Daniel Belquer

That goal of wider acceptance isn’t farfetched. We often see performers turning to new technology to enhance their concerts. Mixed reality and RFID-synced illuminated wearables are already proven in the industry, so taking a step forward towards haptic wearables is logical. That step would create a more immersive experience for non-disabled people and bring the joy of live music to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Cameron Coward
Writer for Hackster News. Maker, retrocomputing and 3D printing enthusiast, author of books, dog dad, motorcyclist, and nature lover.
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