Technology / 03.08.23
Wearable Technology Reimagines the Way Audiences Experience Music
The closing keynote at INTIX 2023 was part of our larger strategic commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI). As we have said before, accessibility extends far beyond venue access ramps. It is much more than providing open captioning or American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation at select performances. Indeed, it impacts and touches all aspects of live entertainment, from the arts and sports to concerts, museums, attractions and more.
At INTIX, we believe empowering the broader entertainment community is vital, as is ensuring that we do what is responsible for all audiences. Our year-round programming, presentations, webinars and editorial coverage showcase important stories across the audience accessibility sphere. Our efforts range from highlighting people and processes to innovations, requirements and knowledge that is needed so we can ensure all attendees feel welcome. And INTIX has an active role to play. To that end, our community is incredibly fortunate to have a group of experts and advocates who passionately give their time. They teach and guide us, and for that, we are always so thankful.
Several of these experts were on hand to take part in the closing keynote panel at the INTIX 44th Annual Conference and Exhibition in Seattle. In the session titled “What If We Were to Reimagine the Way People Experienced Music? Wearable Technology Increases Accessibility,” panelists took attendees on a journey of accessibility and demonstrated innovative technology live and in person. The Vibrotextile™ vest by Music: Not Impossible has wrist and ankle bands that pulse in sync with live performances. Those wearing it can literally feel music and live events through their skin.
Director, Office of Access and VSA,
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Chief Vibrational Officer/Co-Founder,
Music: Not Impossible
Vice President of Community Initiatives,
After the panelists introduced themselves, Chapman-Smith talked about Resonant Philly, an all-inclusive performance that combines a relaxed performance that is audio described, has ASL interpreters and offers the Music: Not Impossible technology, which has the power to change the world. Resonant Philly was born from the accessibility work at Opera Philadelphia during the lockdown time of the pandemic when everything went digital. The team wanted to create the most points of access for the people of Philadelphia. Together with Art-Reach, Opera Philadelphia created Resonant Philly, aiming for a place of total inclusion.
Panel moderator Betty Siegel asked Rose about the considerations that Art-Reach helped Opera Philadelphia think about along the path to inclusivity. It turns out there were many.
“Everyone in the [INTIX conference] room knows it starts with ticketing, but this was really interesting because the tickets didn't really have a price, and they were general admission,” Rose says. “So, what was the ticket-buying process? What are you actually choosing? We developed a menu of those options where you did not have to disclose anything about yourself or your disability. Instead, you get to choose from all the wonderful offerings that are going to be available for the performance. There was an additional box at the bottom to say what you might need us to provide if we hadn't provided something up front. We were able to identify the supports [needed] for each individual while also setting up supports in advance. The ticket-buying process became ‘choose your own adventure’ and then come knowing we have all of that provided. Our goal was to provide information more than transaction in that process.”
The Vibrotextile™ vests presented a new layer of advanced planning. Instead of attendees showing up and simply taking their seats, those who wanted to use the wearable technology would need to “suit up” on arrival. All these logistics were considered before the event, including communications between people who speak different languages (e.g., English and ASL) and ensuring people would feel safe with someone helping them put on the vest, wrist and ankle sensors.
This incredible innovation in wearable technology is changing the way people experience music. And while many people are involved in making it happen, Belquer played a crucial role in its development. He is the Chief Vibrational Officer and Co-Founder of Music: Not Impossible, and he's been passionate about sounds, science and technology for as long as he can remember. Even his master's degree in theatre was all about listening. He also used to teach actors about the importance of listening and has made a living as a composer. Through Music: Not Impossible, Belquer and his collaborators are revolutionizing live entertainment for all audiences.
“I was always interested in the connections between arts and technology. I was approached in New York in 2014, and it seemed a very interesting proposition to help people who are deaf to have a better live music experience,” Belquer told conference attendees, adding that deaf audiences had traditionally held balloons or watched shows in bare feet to feel the vibrations.
Belquer knew we could do more in this day and age and with the technology that we have.
“People would say, ‘This is going to be the new Morse code or Braille [that] people are going to learn.’ I said, ‘No, no, no.’ If I can just go into a venue and feel the energy and the music, and I am enraptured by that experience, why do you have to submit people to a steep learning process and identification?”
That there would be no learning curve was the hardest challenge to solve, Belquer revealed. “[The deaf community] always said, ‘Nothing for us without us.’ They said people would start creating all these solutions they didn't ask for. It's not appropriate. It doesn't solve the problem. So, I said, ‘Let me listen to what they are saying; let me pay attention.’”
Listening as well as extensive development testing continued to advance the technology.
“After a few years and doing a lot of shows, and having music without sound, just vibrations, [plus] lots of experiments, we also found that hearing people enjoyed the experience, so we moved one step up. It was inspired by the deaf [community], but it's for everyone,” Belquer says. "There was a pivotal moment when I was doing a show in LA with 12 deaf people in the audience. They ran into the technical booth and said, ‘Daniel, can we have the drums on the wrists?’ Usually, I would place the drums on the ankles or the back because it feels natural to be stomping and moving with the rhythm. I was intrigued, and I changed the setting. At the end of the show, they came back and said, ‘That was amazing.’ I said, ‘Can I ask you something, why the wrists?’ They said, ‘Because everyone else was raising their arms in the air and fist-pumping, and we wanted to be like everyone else.’ I realized then that this was not only about music. It is about sharing that moment with everybody else. We completely shifted our approach so that it's an experience of togetherness.”
That feeling of being included in something larger than everyone else was accomplished a few years later in Las Vegas, at the show where Greta Van Fleet launched its premiere album, which went on to win best rock album at the Grammys that year. The technology was used in a room of 200 people experiencing a live show. “Half of the audience was deaf, and you couldn’t tell,” says Belquer.
The technology is also used in other genres, including sports and even for car racing, and it augments the live experience for people from the hearing community. Additionally, it has become an art form called haptics. Belquer says, “This is the idea of creating an expression and having the sense of touch as a canvas.”
The INTIX audience was intrigued. They had heard so much about the technology — it was time for a demo. Four attendees volunteered to take the stage to experience a short vibrational composition by Beacon Street Studios from Los Angeles based on music by Skrillex. I don’t believe there were any huge Skrillex fans in the group, but they were evidently feeling the music just the same. They simply could not stand still!
After dancing up a storm wearing technology with 24 individual points of vibration, the volunteers shared what they had experienced. Comments ranged from, “It felt like I’m at Burning Man in the middle of a party” to “That’s not the kind of music I listen to with that ‘thump thump’ thing going on, but it was happening to me no matter what.”
In addition to spanning genres, the Music: Not Impossible technology can react in real-time or be programmed in advance, as it was for the INTIX conference. Real-time and programmed aspects of a performance can also be combined, making the possibilities limitless.
In 2022, Resonant Philly was based on digital works and a piece created by Belquer. It was recorded by Opera Philadelphia sopranos and altos. The next Resonant Philly will be a live cabaret performance focused on the Harlem Renaissance. “It is a relaxed performance, it is a cabaret performance, and it is for adults,” Chapman-Smith says. “Often, relaxed performances tend to focus on youth and children. There are adults with autism who might benefit from a relaxed performance setting. [I have an invisible disability, and] I am not part of the autism community but also benefit from a relaxed performance. Having a space where adults can feel like they can be adults that way is wonderful.”
There were interconnections between people at Resonant Philly who would not usually come together to share the same experience. Belquer described it as a welcoming atmosphere even though opera has traditionally been more rigid. He also shared a memory of his son, who was four years old at the time, running over and jumping into his lap during the show. This may be frowned upon at many live events as being disruptive, especially during an opera. At a fully inclusive event, anything and everything is welcome.
“After working in accessibility for so long, my job has become to accommodate people after the fact. Even with the incredible interpreters on the stage, there is an inevitable delay that's happening. For example, when we are in a comedy space, the joke is a little bit delayed for those who are receiving it in ASL. So, I am laughing, but then they are laughing later,” Rose says. “Daniel has created something where everyone is experiencing everything at the same time.”
Rose continues, “[The Music: Not Impossible technology] almost equalizes things, so when that car is zooming around the track, we all know it is happening. If I am a person who is deaf, if I am a person who is blind, if I am just a person, or if I am a Dani Rose and I am neurodivergent, I am just sitting there experiencing exactly everything that everyone is experiencing all at the same time. When we think about why we are going to live performances and events, it is because of that collective moment. It is the energy; it's that thing that is not tangible, that thing you can’t describe. What we have created with this technology is the opportunity for everyone to have that at the exact same time. For the energy to be equal. In our DEAI spaces, we don't talk about what equality of energy is and who we burden when that energy is not equal. We are really getting the opportunity to experience that based on what Daniel has created, and it is incredible to bring that to the community.
That statement from Rose resonated with Belquer. He then shared this story:
Chapman-Smith agreed with Rose too, stating that the Music: Not Impossible technology has provided the opportunity to create a more level playing field as a community. Resonant Philly has the same objective, aiming to make everyone feel they are being seen for all of their intricate parts and to create a collective experience. “There is a part of me that loves that space and hopes that space will continue in the Opera Philadelphia world. But, there is a part of me that hopes that space will be experienced by people, and people who are able to make change will see those spaces and then start to think about how that happens within their space. It is wonderful to have a Resonant Philly kind of experience in one city but to see it in every city, that's when I feel like a movement has happened.”
Rose quickly added, “I want to be in that movement.”
Siegel followed, “We all want to be part of that movement.”
INTIX too wants to play its part. As an organization, we remain firmly committed to being part of the change and advancement in this area. Our team will continue to produce and share content that elevates the conversation toward action and creates a welcoming environment for fans in every corner of live entertainment.
You May Also Like
Want news like this delivered to your inbox weekly? Subscribe to the Access Weekly newsletter, your ticket to industry excellence.
Tags: Technology , INTIX 2023