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Vibrating suits offer a new way to experience music
Feb 19, 2024

Vibrating suits offer a new way to experience music

Daniel Belquer is using high-tech vibrating suits to make music more accessible to people who can't hear and those that can.

We often think of music as a mostly auditory experience, but it’s also a physical one, especially for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Daniel Belquer — a Philadelphia-based technologist, composer and “chief vibrational officer” of Music: Not Impossible lab — has been studying the relationship between sound and sensation and how that connection can make music more accessible.

Music: Not Impossible is part of Not Impossible Labs, whose mission is to solve societal problems and improve lives through technology.

For the Music: Not Impossible, it starts with the hardware, called suits.

“It includes a harness but also two wrist and ankle bands,” Belquer said. “So, we call it a surround-body experience.”

Positioned throughout the suits are vibrating points that Belquer calls actuators.

“The vibrating points are placed on the shoulders, on the rib cage, the sides of the back, the middle of the back, the bottom of the back, and we also have the wrist and ankle bands to spread the vibrations all throughout the body.”

Concertgoers wearing the Music: Not Impossible haptic suits at a Greta Van Fleet performance in Las Vegas in 2018. (Courtesy Music: Not Impossible Labs)

What makes this suit special is that each vibrating point can be individually controlled.

Belquer explained how it works using a hypothetical scenario of a live concert.

“So the musicians are on stage, and we’re transmitting the guitarist to the shoulders, the voice goes to the rib cage and the hi-hat goes through the wrists, and so forth,” Belquer said. “Everything is dynamically assignable in real time.”

The person wearing the suit can turn the intensity up and down, and there is a “vibra-DJ” who is in charge of sending certain sensations to particular points at different times.

When Music: Not Impossible first started experimenting with vibrations to enhance music, it was focused exclusively on a deaf and hard of hearing audience. As time went on, that began to change.

“We found that everybody enjoys the immersive component of the experience, so we changed the narrative to say it’s a way to connect everybody through amazing experiences,” Belquer said. “We say it’s music for all.”

The haptic suits made by Music: Not Impossible, which are not commercially available, don’t necessarily translate music, but instead they add a new kind of experience.

“Sometimes, the thing that sound horrible to the ears can produce very compelling vibrations and vice versa, because we’re talking about two completely different senses that have different appetites,” Belquer said.

These different sensory appetites mean that creating music that is meant to be felt through the skin requires the composer to take into account a completely different way of consuming music.

“It’s a very uneven system. It’s not like the ears that is just two holes and that’s it,” Belquer said. “The skin has a specific topography, so the wrists feel things in a completely different way from your shoulders, for example.”

Creating these kinds of experiences that are felt through the skin can provide an emotional layer to the music, Belquer said.

“We don’t need to necessarily be one-to-one with music to create an amazing experience, because there are certain things that the skin does very well, like textures and movement,” Belquer said. “You can totally feel the movement across your body, you know, vibrations going up and down, and it’s very interesting and a very compelling experience.”

More on this

Music: Not Impossible has provided vibration suits for plenty of raves and silent discos (where attendees wear headphones to hear the music) around the country, but cases for this vibration technology extend beyond just music.

It’s also provided suits to deaf and hard of hearing fans at a soccer stadium in Belgium, so they could feel the vibrations of the match, as well as a racetrack in Japan to help fans there feel the cars revving their engines and speeding by.

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