Back in September, 200 music fans gathered at the Bunkhouse Saloon in downtown Las Vegas for a private live concert with a unique twist: several of the fans were deaf. The concert served as a beta test for new wearable technology that allows deaf and hearing users alike to experience musical vibrations through their skin for a true “surround body” experience.
The tech is called Music: Not Impossible (M:NI), and it’s the brainchild of former Hollywood producer turned entrepreneur Mick Ebeling, founder and CEO of Not Impossible Labs. The user’s kit includes two battery-powered wristbands, two ankle bands, and a harness that fits across the back and shoulders. It interfaces directly with a venue’s sound system and sends electrical pulses (coordinated with colored LED lights) corresponding to various tracks in the music to the sensors against the skin. Lady Gaga, Hans Zimmer, and Pharrell are fans, with the latter declaring he had “felt the future” after trying M:NI out. The Las Vegas show was presented by Zappos Adaptive and the Church of Rock & Roll.
“We’re not trying to replace music,” said Daniel Belquer, director of technology for Not Impossible Labs. “We’re trying to provide an experience that relates to music. It’s less a new technology and more a new form of expression that, instead of going through the ears, goes through the skin. When you feel it, you understand it.”
The skin is the largest organ in the human body. So why not tap into that?
Belquer explained that M:NI is not about frequency. The skin is a poor discriminator of frequency. It can detect between 10 Hz and 1000 Hz, whereas our ears can hear frequencies as high as 20,000 Hz. But skin is quite sensitive to shifts in intensity and amplitude, and that’s what the M:NI system exploits.
Eberling got the idea for M:NI after noticing how deaf concertgoers would position themselves in front of the speakers, the better to absorb the vibrations. This struck him as an inferior way to experience live music. “It’s all the low-end sound,” he said. “You don’t get the chance to experience any of the fidelity or the acute high ends or other variances that make music magical.”
He pondered whether there was a way to bypass the ears and hack the brain, so to speak—the true source of our sensory experience. The skin is the largest organ in the human body. So why not tap into that?
The “vibrotactile” concert experience
Belquer and Eberling admit their first working prototype fell a bit short on aesthetics, but it served as a great proof of concept. They’ve been refining the M:NI kit over the last couple of years, with some help from musician and vocalist Mandy Harvey, who is deaf. A beta test with deaf users was a smashing success; several didn’t want to give their kits back.
But the technology is not just intended for the deaf. That’s by design, according to Eberling, who recalled sitting on a panel with Stevie Wonder at a disability conference several years ago. The panelists were asked how they would best serve the disabled constituency, and Wonder became visibly irritated by the answers, most of which focused on mandating regulations.
Wonder insisted a better strategy would be to create something with widespread commercial application for the general population. It would just happen to also benefit the disabled. That way market forces, not government mandates, would be driving the change. In fact, Eberling was surprised to learn that the most beneficial recent invention for the deaf community was the smart phone. They can text or make video calls and communicate via sign language. But the smart phone was created for everybody. So is the M:NI system.
One woman likened the experience to “living inside the strings of a piano.”
People at the Vegas concert (both deaf and hearing) reported feeling like their bodies became the instrument and the music was being played through them. One woman likened the experience to “living inside the strings of a piano,” after experiencing the third (Presto agitato) movement of Beethoven’s while wearing the kit.
I had the chance to test M:NI myself at the company’s office in Venice, California, and it’s definitely a unique experience. The first electrical pulse was a bit of a jolt, but I adjusted the intensity and soon got accustomed to the strange buzzing sensations moving across my body with the music. Eberling and Belquer had me try it first without the sound, so I didn’t immediately peg the song I was “listening” to. But as the minutes wore on, I got the hang of it, and soon recognized a telltale drum beat from AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” In fact, my body recognized the beat before I could consciously identify the song.
Eberling thinks of M:NI as almost a new kind of musical instrument and envisions the emergence of “Vibrotactile DJs” (VTDJs). The best DJs already reinterpret popular songs by mixing several different elements together in new ways to create a singular live experience. “Right now, we’re taking musical inputs and translating that into a vibrotactile feeling,” said Eberling. “One of our visions would be that artists would create the vibrotactile experience first and then figure out what musical instrument would best help accentuate that particular feeling.”
The company is preparing to roll out a commercial version next year, including select concert venues starting with the Zappo’s theater in Planet Hollywood’s Las Vegas location. There will also be a hands-on exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Will M:NI become all the rage for live concertgoers or remain a niche curiosity, akin to the D-Box movie theater technology that moves seats around with whatever is happening on the big screen? Time will tell.