Vibrating haptic suits give deaf people a new way to feel live music
When Daniel Belquer was first asked to join a team to make a better live music experience for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, he was struck by how they had developed work-arounds to enjoy concerts.
"What they were doing at the time was holding balloons to feel the vibrations through their fingers, or go barefoot and flip the speakers facing the floor," Belquer said.
He thought the team could make something to help hard-of-hearing people enjoy live music even more with the technology now available. "Like, it's not cool. It's kind of limiting. We could do better than that."
Belquer, who is also a musician and theater artist, is now the "Chief Vibrational Officer" of Music: Not Impossible, an off-shoot of Not Impossible Labs, which uses new technology to address social issues like poverty and disability access.
At first, he thought it might take a week — it took over a year.
"It was a little more challenging than I anticipated," he said, laughing.
His team started by strapping vibrating cell phone motors to bodies, but that didn't quite work. The vibrations were all the same. Eventually, they worked with engineers at the electronic components company Avnet to develop a light haptic suit with a total of 24 actuators, or vibrating plates. There's 20 of them studded on a vest that fits tightly around the body like a hiking backpack, plus an actuator that straps onto each wrist and ankle.
When you wear the suit, it's surprising how much texture the sensations have. It can feel like raindrops on your shoulders, a tickle across the ribs, a thump against the lower back.
It doesn't replicate the music — it's not as simple as regular taps to the beat. It plays waves of sensation on your skin in a way that's complementary to the music.
Trying on a suit
A recent event at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts called "Silent Disco: An Evening of Access Magic" showcased the suit's potential. Seventy-five of them were lined up on racks at a party meant to be accessible to all. Anyone could borrow one, whether they were hearing, hard of hearing or deaf, and the line to try them out snaked around the giant disco ball that had been hung over Lincoln Center's iconic fountain.
The vibrations are mixed by a haptic DJ who controls the location, frequency and intensity of feeling across the suits, just as a music DJ mixes sounds in an artful way.
The evening's haptic DJ was Paddy Hanlon, co-founder of Music: Not Impossible.
"What we're doing is taking the feed from the DJ, and we can select and mix what we want and send it to different parts of the body," he said. "So, I'll kind of hone in on, like, the bass element and I'll send that out, and then the high hats and the snare."
Accessibility for all
The haptic suits were just one component of the event, which was celebrating Disability Pride Month as part of Lincoln Center's annual Summer for the City festival. There were American Sign Language interpreters; the music was captioned on a screen on the stage; there was audio description for those who were blind, and there were chairs to sit in. There's also a chill-out space with noise-reducing headphones, earplugs and fidgets for those who feel overstimulated. Because it's a silent disco — meaning you can only hear the music through headphones attendees — could adjust the sound to be as loud or soft as you like.
Miranda Hoffner, Lincoln Center's head of accessibility, said "Access Magic" is a full-scale rethinking of what it means to have access to the arts. "I feel so grateful for the amount of cultural arts that are in this city — and it's so wrong how people are left out of that because of the design of institutions. So it's really important to me that everyone has access to the arts in a way that's not an add-on or secondary but gives the same amount of choice for everyone."
Yet the suits are the star attraction. Lily Lipman, who has auditory processing disorder, glowed when asked about her experience.
"It's cool, because I'm never quite sure if I'm hearing what other people are hearing, so it's amazing to get those subtleties in my body."
It's important that people like Lipman are seen and acknowledged, said Kevin Gotkin, one of the evening's DJs and the curator of disability artistry events at Lincoln Center. "This is a chance for us to be together and experience access that's integrated into a party artistically and not as, like, a compliance thing," they said.
"Someone can come to a place where disability is expected, and disability is loved — and yeah, disability is the center of the party."
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