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Deaf actor Russell Harvard with Music: Not Impossible at SXSW 2016

The staccato vibrations from the drumbeat hit me in the wrists. Then the bass rattled my spine as the rock song moved beyond my ears, transforming into a full-body experience — one that could revolutionize concert-going for the deaf and hard of hearing.

I was wearing a prototype of a “wireless ecosystem,” including a technology-stuffed cargo vest and ankle and wrist bands, in a demonstration by the Music: Not Impossible (MNI) project during the Sound Scene festival at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. in early July. Developed by Not Impossible Labs to help the deaf “hear” music, the suit translates sounds into a cascade of vibrations, with different instruments registering in different zones across the ankles, wrists, back, or ribcage. After three years of development, a dozen prototype suits have been created and tested at concerts and other events, including the first stop of Lady Gaga’s Dive Bar Tour in Nashville last year and the South by Southwest festival in Austin.

The author wearing a vibration suit

“For the deaf, it’s mind-blowing,” MNI technology director Daniel Belquer told me. “We understand that a live concert isn’t just entertainment. There’s a big social component, and they feel left out.”

In the demonstration, Belquer first used sound with the vibration suits to show how they complement each other. When we were told to pretend to dive into a pool, I heard a splash and felt ripples across my chest. During a meditative segment, subtle soothing vibrations spread across my body to the sound of chimes and lapping waves. While the suits may heighten concert experiences for the hearing, the real goal is to use only vibrations in order to feel rather than hear music. After playing one rock song with the sound, Belquer devised a test. He played only the vibrations of a song through the suits and asked our group to identify the song, providing one hint, that the song was by a 1980s stadium-rock band. The vibrations, with heavy bass and drumbeats, stumped everyone in my group, but it took a woman in a previous demonstration less than 10 seconds to nail the song as “Back in Black” by AC/DC. “That’s a record,” Belquer said about her quick response.

Daniel Belquer leading the demonstration at the Hirshhorn

The vibration suits were developed with input from deaf people, including deaf singer Mandy Harvey, who received a standing ovation for her performance on America’s Got Talent, in which she took off her shoes so she could feel the vibrations of her voice and guitar through the floor. After trying the vibration suit, Harvey said it was “cool and beautiful” to feel different musical vibrations that weren’t all muddled together.

Deaf people sometimes stand close to speakers or squeeze a balloon to feel vibrations during a concert. I tried using a balloon after having worn the vibration suit, but the mild thumps from the music felt roughly the same for all instruments, and it would be awkward carry a balloon around during a concert. Belquer said the drumbeats had been moved to the wristbands because concert goers often throw their arms in the air during heavy drumbeats.

Launched in 2009, Not Impossible Labs has focused on innovations in health, mobility, and communication. Its first project, Eyewriter, which is included in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, is an inexpensive open-source device that lets paralyzed people communicate by simply moving their eyes. It was developed to help Los Angeles graffiti artist Tony “TEMPT ONE” Quan create art again after he was paralyzed by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and it was named one of Time magazine’s top 50 inventions in 2010. The lab also developed the first 3D-printed prosthetic arm to help amputees in war-torn South Sudan.

Katie Couric, Mick Ebeling (founder and CEO of Not Impossible Labs), Mandy Harvey (deaf singer), Daniel Belquer (Not Impossible’s Director of Technology), and an ASL translator at the Labs in Venice Beach, CA (2015)

Besides helping the deaf, there are other potential applications for the vibration suits, including heightening musical experiences for those who can hear and augmenting virtual-reality video games. The suits don’t have a trademarked name yet, but Belquer said the company is seeking funding from investors and company sponsorships, with plans to sell a complete suit for $350 to $500 when the trials are completed. Deaf writer-director Chase Burton also is creating a tactile “soundtrack” using the suits for an upcoming short film titled “Mather.”

After 15 minutes in the suit, I felt slightly dizzy, like I was experiencing a mild case of carsickness without the nausea. The suit’s vibrations are powerful, transferring the ethereal beauty of music from one sense to another via direct sensations that pulsate through your body. I can only imagine what it would be like for a deaf person to feel music with this technology for the first time, but I hope to see many of them suited up and partying on the dance floor soon.

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Brendan L. Smith

Brendan L. Smith is a mixed-media artist, freelance writer, and arts educator in Washington, D.C. In past lives, he was a staff reporter for newspapers across...