A Vibrant Project

Vibrance is a system intended to provide students in the Deaf community a fun way to experience rhythm and music, designed for children ages 3-5 years old. The tactile portion of the system is a fun, wearable stuffed animal that can be worn as a backpack or as a hug and vibrates to the music. When it’s time to start the dance class, the instructor just selects a song from their phone of laptop, and the room of students are connected through the same vibrational music experience.

This project was started in the fall of 2018 by the Vibrance team as a part of University of Pittsburgh’s Art of Making course as a way to focus on human-centered design and design-thinking, and is currently being further developed alongside the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and Attack Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA. 

We all have our own relationships with music and dance, but this project is all about designing for a unique set of people. Early on we learned that it is important to not try to recreate music as hearing people perceive it. That experience is not superior, it’s just different. People who are deaf or hard-of-hearing don’t feel they have a disadvantage; they are proud to be who they are. With the vibration of the music rhythm, this project, WPSD and Attack Theatre hope to create a context for dancing in a way the children haven’t previously been exposed to, in order to lay the groundwork and provide a pathway for future physical and emotional expression.

The project competed in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Senior Design Exposition in the fall of 2018, receiving three titles:

·     People's Choice Award
·     Best Art of Making Project
·     Best Overall Design

In March of 2019, Vibrance became one of the founding projects a part of Dr. Joseph Samosky’s Classroom to Community (C2C) initiative, where it has received new funding and allowed the team to further pursue the project.

Something Newsworthy!

System & Setup

The current system contains two parts, the first being an expandable set of Penguins that work over a radio connection, with each having its own internal battery and electronics zipped away. This way, there are no exposed wires for the children to be harmed by or interfere with. It is packed with squishy foam and has a soft felt exterior to be as child-friendly and huggable as possible! Inside the penguin features a tactile transducer, essentially a flat speaker, that recreates the music. There is an instructor interface hidden in the edge that can be accessed with a quick peak using the zipper that is used to charge the device and adjust the volume for a specific child's needs.

The second part of the system connects to the instructor’s laptop or other device with a headphone jack, that transmits the chosen music to all of the penguins at once. A goal was to make set-up for the classes as simple as possible, and so all that needs to be done is turn everything on and hit play!

Initial Design

The initial design was created over the course of 6 weeks in the fall of 2018 by a team of twelve students. We went through an extensive design process with over six iterations and three rounds of testing with the kids and instructors at WPSD during their workshop with Attack Theater.

We were approached by Attack Theatre who collaborates with the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (WPSD) to lead dance classes for deaf children. They have these workshops for preschoolers because physical expression is vital to ASL. They needed a way for kids to interact with music in an engaging way. Originally, the instructor would start the workshop by dancing to music from a speaker, but there’s a clear disconnect. It wasn’t that the kids had a problem following along, rather the challenge was engaging them. They moved the speaker inside a trashcan; it vibrates and the kids can physically feel the music! But, that halted the workshop because the kids can’t really move around to dance with the instructors, they have to take their hands off of the trashcan to communicate, and only two kids or so could crowd around it so they would have to take turns and share.

Seeing that the kids wanted to interact with the trash can, we reimagined this experience with our project, Vibrance. We also wanted to make it portable, hands-free, scalable for multiple students, and ensure it would be kid friendly. Additionally, we wanted to add a visual representation of the music to connect what they’re feeling and what they’re seeing.

The biggest challenge in this project arose from the age of kids and our communication barrier. We couldn’t exactly ask deaf preschoolers to quantify what they liked and disliked about our designs. Essentially, the metric of success was their smiles. For example, the first time we tested, one of our designs was a rough prototype of a vibrating wristband. Immediately, one of the kids almost started crying immediately because she was scared. We learned that our designs needed to be really kid-friendly, and include both visual and tactile components.

Initially broke into two sensory groups: visual and tactile. One pretotype was a wristband: vibration motor on a felt strap. We faked functionality by having someone press a button to the beat, but straight vibrations are startling to the kids that age, and hands/wrists are important for ASL students who need them. Another pretotype was a light-up disk I designed, rigged with a length of wire to a control box with a button and color slider we could use to also time it to the music, but also to the kids' movements so that whenever they stomped it lit up. The lights were not useful on their own, and after research and interviews we learned vibrations were the most important.

For our second round of testing, we presented multiple ways to interact with vibrations, which at this point we had invested in different transducers to directly translate music into vibrations while keeping the nuance of different frequencies for notes. We put transducers in heavy foam board on the floor for the kids to stand on a feel vibrations through their feet. For the kids that ended up being difficult to feel and distracting. A stuffed monkey was third, essentially a transducer stuffed in a foam cube with some felt. The children loved interacting with it.

This led to the team creating three hand-designed, stuffed monkeys, putting transducer inside of them, and making “arms” of elastic straps and buckles to adjust to different kid sizes that could be taken off if a child became overwhelmed with a sensory overload. That first set of three monkeys still had a ways to go, as we learned the vibrations weren't not strong enough, the head was too big, arms too long, but met most design requirements. Most of all, kids loved them!

That was the design after the first six weeks. Ultimately, we achieved our goal in creating a system to potentially engage students with music while they are dancing in an Attack workshop. We knew the design could be built upon by refining and implementing a set into regularly-scheduled workshops. Learning more about the needs of the classroom, we were inspired to explore creating a similar but different system for exclusive WPSD use in their rhythms and rhymes class.

Improvements Since Joining C2C

Classroom to Community (C2C) is an initiative started by Dr. Joseph Samosky, PhD that aims to allow innovation of student-led design projects outside of the classroom. Often, a viable product is created in a product design class but work is halted as soon as grades come out and the course ends. Students who want to continue their projects have historically struggled to find funding to continue to development of their projects or make successful startup businesses, and this is the problem Classroom to Community aims to address by providing tools, funding, and vital resources such as a dedicated workspace and access to University specialists. Since becoming one of the founding projects in C2C, the Vibrance team has overhauled our system with a completely new design, as well as continued communication with Attack Theatre and WPSD, to further research and testing so that the children can enjoy wearing and interacting with our device.

The first set of improvements were carried out by the new Vibrance Team, consisting at that point 6 members, creating the Monkey v1.2, which was the first set of 4 devices to be left in the hands of Attack Theatre and WPSD for workshops. We created an instruction guide for setting up and trouble-shooting the devices, pairing the color-coded bluetooth receivers to matching bluetooth transmitters, with the option to expand by adding more transmitters. This led to connectivity & set-up issues, and while we could easily resolve them in the lab and provided troubleshooting steps, it was too much of a hassle for the instructors to work through at the start of a workshop.

This led to Monkey v1.3, where we exchanged the bluetooth receivers for an integrated amplifier & bluetooth board and got transmitters that could pair to two devices at once. This cut the set-up on the devices to just turning on them and connecting each to the bluetooth transmitter. While this was an improvement, and despite pre-pairing the devices, it was still unreliable. This led us to majorly re-think the way we did the auto to create a more custom solution. One idea was to delve into the world of bluetooth audio protocols and programming our own chips. Alternatively, we could use a simpler solution that has brought audio to millions of households and cars simultaneously since the 60s: radio. This introduced an entire system redesign, the Vibrance Penguin.