Design

These “Headphones” Convert Sound Into Vibration So The Deaf Can Experience Music

by DJ Pangburn

August 12, 2016

When it comes to sound—particularly recorded and live music—we take vibration for granted. But attend a flamenco performance or go to a My Bloody Valentine concert (as I like to), and you’ll understand what it’s like to feel those vibrations in your bones.

Liron Gino, an industrial designer and recent graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Jerusalem, took this to heart with her recent creation Vibeat—headphones and other accessories designed for the hearing impaired. Vibeat takes sound and music and converts the waveforms into vibrations fine-tuned for the body to feel, rather than hear.

“Music is one of the deepest and most primal forms of human communication, and its ability to convey emotion and expression make it into an invaluable tool,” Gino said in a statement. “However, there are those among us who do not share these mutual experiences.”

Gino tells GOOD that Vibeat spun off from conversations she’d had with individuals in the deaf and hearing-impaired community for an unrelated project—Gino would ask about their day-to-day experiences, and much to her surprise, one of the most frequent topics turned out to be music. 

In researching how to convert sound into a different sensory medium, Gino looked for inspiration in the ways that audio has been visualized. She also studied the phenomena of sound waves interacting with water, producing fluid waves. Gino thanks the Canadian-based company StudioFeed for the lessons she learned from its “tactile bass system” SubPak, which converts sound into vibrations to be felt by the body.

“Throughout the entire design process, I would meet and discuss various elements of the product with hearing impaired people,” Gino says. “[They] helped me to understand their needs and desires. I realized [Vibeat] would have to provide a parallel sensory experience to that which a hearing person might have when using a portable music player with headphones.”

Music is one of the deepest and most primal forms of human communication… [But] there are those among us who do not share these mutual experiences.

The product would therefore need to be compact, portable, gender-neutral and desirable, allowing several options for placement on the body—why stick to the ears? Gino also hoped that Vibeat would appeal to those who could hear.

“The human sense of hearing is very unique in that it can sense and comprehend a very large range of frequencies,” says Gino. “The sense of touch, however, is less sensitive in that respect, and most people can only feel a small fraction of the frequencies which they can hear—namely, bass frequencies.”

“Therefore,” she adds, “a simple mechanism which would convert an audio signal to a vibration of identical frequency would not suffice in providing a true representation of all that we can hear. To try to address this problem, I had the entire range of heard frequencies modeled and ‘re-scaled’ to fit within the frequency range that the body can feel.”

First, the audio signal is fed into Vibeat through Bluetooth technology. Then the signal is analyzed and rescaled in real-time, then fed through to vibration motors, with different motors reacting to different frequencies. If a user pairs two Vibeat units, he or she can decide that each unit should convey a different frequency range. One unit might handle bass frequencies, while the other could focus on high frequencies. Alternatively, Gino says that both units can be configured to convey the same feeling (an identical representation of the full frequency range, for example), making it possible for two people to share the same experience.

After Gino demoed a working Vibeat prototype at the Bezalel Academy of Arts exhibition, she says the demand has been exciting; at the moment she is “working on refining and further developing the product.”

Images and video courtesy Liron Gino

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These “Headphones” Convert Sound Into Vibration So The Deaf Can Experience Music