Music Tech & Accessibility: The Haptic Baton

1st April 2019

Music Tech & Accessibility: The Haptic Baton

Helping visually-impaired musicians perform alongside other musicians

Abbey Road Red's Hash Riaz tells us about how music technology can be used to level the playing field for Disabled musicians.

For many, music is the universal language, but the process of music creation and performance are not accessible to everyone. There are over 11 million people with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or Disability in the UK, yet many of the typical ‘off the shelf’ instruments are not suited to the Disabled community. This creates a clear demand for new accessible music technologies to create and perform music. One of the organisations on a mission to bridge this gap is Human Instruments, whose vision is to research, design and develop high-quality musical instruments for people with physical disabilities. We recently caught up with Human Instruments co-founder and creative technologist Vahakn Matossian to talk about one of his latest projects - The Haptic Baton.

The Haptic Baton, developed in collaboration with programmer and developer Charles Matthews, and supported and tested by the Paraorchestra and friends, helps visually impaired musicians to perform live alongside other musicians within a group. This is made possible using an augmented conductor’s baton, which as Vahakn explains “relates the abstract dance of the conductor's hand gestures into a sensory input/feeling” that can be felt by the musician. Motion sensors inside the baton send data to a micro-controller, which converts and wirelessly transmits the movement data to wearable wristbands via radio transmission (similar to on-stage wireless microphone technology). Musicians can wear the left and right wristbands on their respective wrists/arms/ankles and feel the baton movements as haptic vibrations and rather than following the visual cues of the conductor’s baton, musicians feel the cues instead.

A system of this kind would suffer if there is noticeable latency (delay) between the baton movements and the vibrations felt by the musicians. To combat this and to ensure the system was both stable and reliable, Vahakn employed wireless technology from Shure, who supported the project with their PSM900 in-ear monitoring system.
The Haptic Baton
The Haptic Baton in action
Wearable vibrating bands worn by the musicians
Vahakn’s passion for creating a new generation of music technology in collaboration with the ParaOrchestra and friends, conducted by Charles Hazlewood is evident - “The Paralympics uses professional sporting equipment – what cool instruments are there for people who are disabled by the restrictions of classical music conventions?”. Vahakn told us the Haptic Baton is an extension from an early prototype his father (and longtime Stockhausen collaborator) Rolf Gehlhaar created called ‘Beat Buzz’. The new Haptic Baton is more technologically advanced, including near zero-latency (thanks to Matthews elegant programming and Shure’s radio transmission tech) and stereo haptic feedback (left/right) that reacts to the sensitivity of the conductor’s hand gestures. As explained earlier, the Haptic Baton breaks down barriers and allows for visually impaired musicians who were previously excluded from group performances to finally play live with other musicians. This is typically difficult in traditional orchestral situations where performers follow the conductor’s baton. So this is the first time that multiple visually-able and impaired musicians can perform together following one conductor’s baton - the Haptic Baton.

Vahakn's inspiration for the project came through a meeting with Kyunho Jeon, who is a talented percussionist but has not previously been able to play in an orchestra due to his visual impairment. Kyunho became a virtuoso soloist out of necessity, as he was not able to play alongside other musicians. Early tests with Kyunho and the Haptic Baton are proving successful and he is now able to realise his dream of playing live alongside an orchestra. Below is a great BBC video covering the Haptic Baton and shows Kyunho using the system in a live performance - an inspiring watch if you have the time!
This is just one example of how we can harness music technology to level the playing field and break down the barriers for everyone to enjoy creating and performing music. Abbey Road Red supports music tech & accessibility and will be keeping an eye on future developments with the Haptic Baton project, Human Instruments and other organisations working in this space. For more information, pictures and news on other accessible tech, head over to Human Instruments.