Touchable Music

In a recent Reuters news release there was an item about touchable holograms.  This is actually quite neat and conjures up images of the holodeck on “Star Trek-The Next Generation”.  For the one or two people in the universe that don’t know about the holodeck, it’s a room (below, left) fitted out with holographic projectors and can create any number of touchable things ranging from an alien bar to a Klingon battle scene… and if you have never heard of Klingons (below-right), well…



Touchable hologram technology allows the use of other senses to view what would be purely a visual (and possibly an acoustic) scene and make it multi-modal.  One can feel the items in the hologram as well as see them.  Previous touchable holograms did work but the laser energy and frequency required was so great that it would burn the skin.  We don’t have any long-term data yet on whether this newer technology has unknown side effects, but it looks promising.

Imagine listening to Mozart or U-2 acoustically but then being bombarded with vibrations and possibly even shapes that could be felt.  I am not sure if I would like this personally, especially while driving a car, but for those who have limited acoustic abilities, such as those with a hearing loss, this added dimension of feeling or tactile-response may be able to improve one’s enjoyment of the music.

Another approach which may get to our living rooms sooner is one that is being developed by Dimitri Hadjichristou.

This is a glass conical tube with a loudspeaker diaphragm at the base connected via some wires (and associated electronics) to a series of synthesizers, microphones, and other noise/sound/music sources.  Spread around the truncated base of the cone are some ball bearings that bounce around in response to the output of the loudspeaker, and depending on the mass of the ball bearings, will physically be tossed around to give some visual representation of the sound or music emanating from the cone’s loudspeakers.

Dimitri Hadjichristou, the developer, is aiming to bring this out as a toy in the not-too-distant future.  He was visiting Donaldson’s School in Scotland which is a school for the hard of hearing.  The children could sit at a wooden table (with a loudspeaker situated beneath the table) and feel the vibrations from the table surface for certain sounds.  This would only really work for those sounds that were close to the resonant frequency of the table.  Mr. Hadjichristou wanted to build a device that was more portable and would allow a greater range of stimuli to be transduced.

Yet another multi-modal device that may allow improved sensing of music (and perhaps speech) is the Emoti-chair developed at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.  I have seen it used but have never sat in it.  The Emoti-chair is a long chair which is not that dissimilar to a modern dental chair (but without the picks and needles).  This chair was developed by Dr. Deborah Fels, CLT Director and Associate Professor from the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management in conjunction with Dr. Frank Russo, Professor of Psychology and the director of the SMART Lab. Dr. Russo has made the study of emotion and music his life’s work.


The Emoti-chair contains a number of voice coils that provide well-defined vibrations that are synchronized with the music, as well as colored visual cues that can be observed on a screen relating to the frequency, and amplitude of the music.  To do this, MusicViz software is used, also developed at Ryerson University.

From the Ryerson University website, “The Emoti-chair (is a device) where people who are deaf or hard of hearing will have explicit access to the melody, bass and volume information of music in a way that is intended to be entertaining and enjoyable…. Using the human cochlea, music cognition, and universal design as inspiration, we have developed a way to transpose the elements of music, including voice, into touch-based and visual experiences.”

The Emoti-chair has a number of potential uses ranging from an enhancement of the enjoyment of music to a device to study the emotional effects of music.  More information can be found at the Auditory Research and Technology (SMART Lab).


About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.