Feature Story

Deaf children experience whale music through a high-tech backpack

by Matt Bokor

muse seek

Tactile transducers and vibrotactile membranes in the SubPac device produce the physical sensations of music

Using technology that transfers music from the audio to the tactile realm, a group of deaf children recently experienced the curious singing of humpback whales frolicking in the tropical waters of the Dominican Republic.

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The 24 children, students at the National School for the Deaf in Santo Domingo, wore special backpack-like devices to feel the vibrations of the humpbacks' multi-octave groans, grunts, squeaks and squeals, which were picked up by a hydrophone beneath their whale-watching boat.

 "A lot of the students couldn't even express what they were feeling, they were so moved," recalled Dominican artist-musician María Batlle, who founded The Muse Seek Project in 2013 to break barriers between music and deaf children. "They'd never been on a boat before, they'd never seen a whale before, just in pictures, now they want to study more about whales. ... They were in joy, it was very amazing."

Strapped to the students' backs were 5-pound SubPac units, featuring a high-fidelity tactile bass system that transfers sound frequencies to the body using wireless input (Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP streaming).

"SubPac took the program to a new level," said Batlle, 33, who heard about the product in 2014 through a friend.

For starters, SubPac, based in Los Angeles, donated two of its wearable models (retail price, $349 each) to The Muse Seek Project. The first step for the 30-40 students was to record their voices, then their best friend's voice.

"We pushed 'play' and they could feel the vibration of their own voice," Batlle said. "They were in awe because they didn't know that when they express something, like if they laugh or express surprise or shock, that it's a sound. They didn't know they were making any kind of sound that other people can hear. For them it was a discovery."

After two years of collaboration with the National School for the Deaf, Batlle and The Muse Seek Project in February launched an innovative music program for 10th graders at the 500-student school. "This is the first music program as part of the curriculum at a school for the deaf in the Dominican Republic," Batlle said proudly. "That's huge!"

SubPac applications have been pushed far beyond the intended realms of music production and enjoyment, including integration into Peugeot's "Fractal" concept car and part of the VR-enhanced premiere of Universal Pictures' Jurassic World.

Produced by StudioFeed, a global community of artists, engineers and technologists headquartered in Los Angeles, the newest SubPac M2 wearable unit combines proprietary tactile transducers and vibrotactile membranes to create an enhanced vibratory field for optimum efficiency and impact. There's also a seat-back version, the SubPac S2 ($299).

Users of SubPac's strap-on model feel the physical dimension of sound wherever they go, while the outside world hears nothing. A perfect example was The Muse Seek Project's Silent Disco, which Batlle organized as part of a May 2015 music festival at oceanfront Punta Cana on the East Coast. Thirty deaf children, their friends and parents felt the pulsating rhythms as they danced in silence.

"There was a DJ playing, all the kids were wearing SubPacs, but there was no sound," Batlle said. "People would walk around and ask what were they dancing to, they couldn't hear anything — and the kids were dancing up a storm."

Batlle said she received priceless validation of her project's success when 9-year-old Annie told her:  "To be able to dance, I used to stare at hearing people dancing to follow the rhythm, but now with SubPac I can dance with my eyes closed."

Muse Seek Project collaborators include professors from Harvard, Yale, NYU and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and organizations and companies from all over the world. 

A key partner is musician-author David Rothenberg, Ph.D., professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Among other work, he writes and performs on the relationship between humanity and nature, playing his clarinet amid the sounds of birds, insects and whales in their natural habitats around the globe. 

Rothenberg shared with Batlle the visual representation of whale music that he co-developed with graphic designer Michael Deal using sonogram technology. It confirmed Batlle's hunch that deaf students could experience whale songs with SubPac technology.

"When María saw the renovated sonogram designs that Michael and I developed, she immediately got it," Rothenberg said. "She said, 'Oh, my kids will love these, they will understand the whale songs now right away.' ”

Rothenberg joined the first Whale Muse Seek voyage in February 2014, playing his clarinet for the nearby humpbacks. Wearing SubPacs, three deaf students felt the vibrations of both the whales' and Rothenberg's tunes. 

"It was so emotional. Everyone on the boat was crying — the kids, their parents, all of them," Batlle said. "One child closed his eyes as he felt the whales' music and asked: 'Mom, am I dreaming?' "

The 10-passenger outing was such a success that the second annual whale-watching trip on March 6 had 65 passengers, including 24 deaf students, parents, teachers and guests. 

Marlene Mercedes, percussionist from the National Symphony Orchestra and Global Leader for the Young Orchestra of the Americas, was leading several musicians as they performed for the humpbacks, which migrate every winter from the northern Gulf of Maine to the waters around Samaná Peninsula in northeastern Dominican Republic.

"We feel the whales were singing with us because we never heard them that loud before, not even the boat captain who's been on hundreds of whale-watching trips," Batlle said. "It makes you feel very humble to have this level of communication with an animal. ... And the kids, I knew they would like it but they were really passionate, it was a life-changing experience."


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