Songs for the deaf? That’s what a group of Ryerson professors are planning for Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. Business and technology editor Matthew Braga reports
A group of Ryerson professors are making songs for the deaf — and we aren’t talking about covers of the popular Queens of the Stone Age album.
By generating different types of vibration, the team has developed a number of devices that allow the deaf and hard of hearing to experience sound and music, some of which will be shown during a Scotiabank Nuit Blanche performance this weekend.
Called VIBES! Feel It!, the exhibit can be found in the Distillery District, within the Deaf Culture Centre in Zone B.
“It’s looking at ways of making music accessible…[and] experiencing music without sound,” explained Frank Russo, director of the university’s Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology lab.
He’s quick to point out that this isn’t a new trend; Beethoven had the same idea when he began to lose his hearing, playing piano close to the ground so he could “feel” the notes vibrate through the floor.
What has changed, however, is how the technology is used to harness that sensation, resulting in a more effective experience for those unable to hear.
One of those devices is dubbed the Emoti-chair, and was first conceived over two years ago by Russo and two other Ryerson professors.
By applying vibrations of varying size and power to a user’s back, the chair attempts to produce physical representations of rhythm and voice.
“The solution with the chair is to separate the low and the high, to put different frequency channels on different part of the bodies,” explained Russo, “and that really is the essence of why this thing seems to work.”
The same theory has been applied to another one of Russo’s devices, a modified foam pool noodle called a vibe worm.
By feeding wire through its hollow centre, the noodle can be turned into a makeshift speaker that transmits sound through “the skin instead of vibrations through the air.”
What the team finds most impressive with these devices is not just the ability for deaf or hard of hearing users to detect change in tone or pitch, but differences between voices or instruments as well, all thanks to subtle variances in the pattern of vibration.
“There are certain gestures that work very well, like sweeps in frequencies that move up and down,” explained Paul Swoger-Ruston, a lecturer in music at Ryerson University and the man responsible for composing some of the Emoti-chair’s music.
“You have to kind of think in larger intervals than traditional music.”
While the human ear is capable of hearing a very wide range of frequencies, those that can be interpreted through vibration are far less — only between 1 and 1000Hz, approximately.
That means composers like Swoger-Ruston must be particularly careful to compose pieces that translate well into a vibratory experience. “Obviously, rhythmically charged stuff is most readily apparent, so anything with a regular pulse most obviously comes through.”
“But it is quite remarkable that the deaf can actually discern differences in vocal tambour through vibrations, so it’s richer than I ever expected.”
So rich, in fact, that one of the chair’s creators, Maria Karam, is currently working to produce a commercialized version of the chair that can be purchased by deaf users, or even musical enthusiasts like Swoger-Ruston.
And thanks to its inclusion in this year’s Nuit Blanche festival, users will have a chance to experience that same feeling firsthand, thanks to devices like the Emoti-chair and Russo’s vibe worms.
“What is particularly interesting about this performance, is the fact that no-one will be “hearing” the music!” explained Gwen Dobie, a professor at York University’s department of theatre, and one of the deaf performers involved in this weekend’s exhibit.
“The public will be placed in a position to feel the vibrations, to experience music as the deaf or hard of hearing.”
Scotiabank Nuit Blanche runs all night, Oct. 2, from 6:57 p.m. to sunrise.
Photo: Matthew Braga