The future of music is for everyone—even the deaf
For Mick Ebeling, CEO of Not Impossible Labs, the fact that the deaf can’t experience music in the same way as the hearing seemed absurd. While “hearing” music does involve the different parts of the ear, there are many other parts of the brain that play into our perception of music. People who are deaf still take in the sounds of music, just in a different format: as vibrations.
To feel the vibrations of music, the deaf can stand close to speakers, hold balloons or go barefoot, but they’re still essentially hacking their way in. In a live music setting, the deaf tend to miss out on a powerful personal and social experience. So, Mick and the team at this technology incubator and R&D lab embarked on years of study and experimentation to figure out how to dramatically enhance the currently one-dimensional live music experience. They found that the way to “bypass” the ears was to bring musical vibrations directly to the skin, and they created a wearable device to do it.
Not Impossible Labs’ early prototypes received awards and rave reviews from deaf audiences and musicians, and even television news hosts. While they knew they had created something powerful that the whole world could enjoy—deaf and hearing alike—they were still early on in their development cycle and were exploring ways to bring their product to market. It was then that the Not Impossible team brought their proof-of-concept to Avnet.
A little more than six months later, the two teams have collaboratively produced one of the most sophisticated wearables on the market: Music: Not Impossible (M:NI). Today, it’s poised to transform the way people experience music around the world, and it’s powered by the Internet of Things.
A guide to reach the ‘many’ like never before
The M:NI prototype was developed hand-in-hand with members of the Deaf community following Mick’s “help one, help many” business model. “At Not Impossible Labs, a project always starts with solving one problem for one person,” Mick said. Once his team identifies a solution, they focus on making that solution accessible to many. “Then we just start releasing stuff so we can learn what other people need and want, and finish things in sprints. We don't hide the fact that we might be cobbling something together to get across the finish line." It was during that process they realized the product had the ability to help everyone, both Deaf and hearing, experience music more fully.
The Not Impossible Labs team had a crystal-clear vision for the experience they wanted M:NI to deliver and feedback on their initial proof-of-concept. “It was very prone to interference and it didn’t quite pick up the subtleties of each musical instrument,” said Daniel Belquer, Not Impossible Labs Director of Technology.
So, Not Impossible Labs brought their prototype and users’ feedback to Avnet. For Avnet project manager Erich Van Stralen, it was the perfect point in the project to get involved. “It’s exciting to work with customers that have a proof of concept and come to us asking: ‘Now what?’” he said. “We work on so many projects, so we understand the complex challenges in today’s markets and can tap into the Avnet ecosystem of in-house and partner resources to reduce the time, cost and complexity of bringing products to market.”
Over the course of the project, we brought in teams to address user experience, industrial design, softgoods design, mechanical and electronic engineering, software and firmware—in addition to sourcing all of the components, setting up supply chain and logistics and establishing a network for production.
“Avnet provided the resources for us to take this huge leap from our backyard prototype to a full-blown industrialized product,” said Daniel. “They basically helped us move from the black and white television straight to high definition in a matter of months.”
How do you develop a new musical experience at scale?
Before they got to work, the Avnet and Not Impossible Labs teams needed to agree on the product’s requirements—no small feat for a diverse team of musicians, media producers, marketers and engineers charged with creating a solution for a problem that many people didn’t even know existed. Erich invested time up front to help Daniel articulate requirements and set a stringent communications cadence to keep everyone aligned as needs evolved.
“It didn’t always work. We’d get the global team on the phone, share computer-generated models, talk through pros and cons, and make tough calls as we needed to. It was just like walking to the next cubicle, even though we could be 5,000 miles apart,” said Erich.
The team hit multiple technical roadblocks along the way—par for the course with any new invention, especially one as complex as M:NI. Musical vibrations needed to be perfectly timed and transmitted to several different areas on the body through a lightweight harness, plus wrist and ankle bands. What’s more, the wearable needed to be triggered by complex software to mix and transmit the live music into vibrations and lights. Each adjustable harness and band leveraged a battery pack, actuators, a number of colorful LED lights, plus a subwoofer in the harness, to create a immersive vibratory live music experience. The team of developers also carefully considered the product’s user experience, which included charging, setup and teardown of the system at the music venue.
One of the biggest challenges was ensuring that the product could handle a crowd—meaning, multiple simultaneous users — with no perceptible latency during performances. Not only were there a ton of variables, from the size of the audience to the instruments playing on stage, there were three pieces of the experience that the team had to bring together within a 30 millisecond time window:
- The musicians playing on stage
- The sound and feeling of the audio from the speakers
- The vibration of the product’s actuators
If that didn’t all come together it would have been, “awful, like watching television when the audio is out of sync with the person talking,” Erich said. To solve this, we incorporated LoRa (or long range, low power) connectivity into the product. That way, they could broadcast out one way, avoid the clutter of a return signal and host thousands of people with no crosstalk.
Another challenge was finding the right actuators, which trigger the vibrations, to enable a precise and enjoyable experience. Once the team found the right technology, they were continually challenged to fit it all into wearable form factors. What’s more, since the product was intended for use at concert venues, comfort was key—as was the ability for concertgoers to continue to express their individuality through fashion. They needed top-tier soft goods to make it happen. The team was constantly balancing out the product’s technology, form factor and aesthetics.
Once it all started to come together, the Not Impossible team soon realized the magnitude of what they created. “M:NI is basically a new musical instrument. You can play it a million different ways,” Daniel said. “The hardware on this product has to be very adaptable, so whoever is mixing the musical vibrations can change the frequencies, amplitudes and even the position on the body where the channels hit to enable the best concert experience for the audience.”
While it was a challenging phase, communication and collaboration ensured everything stayed on track. “Milestone after milestone, even the smaller ones, every week I had a rain of emails and calls and meetings from the different teams asking for feedback,” Daniel said. “So many people, on different continents, were all personally invested in our success.”
“Our partnership is special not just because of the team’s passion, but because of Avnet’s proven track record of being able to help products and companies scale. That’s why this partnership is the perfect marriage. It furthers our mission to ‘help one, help many.’”
- Mick Ebeling, CEO, Not Impossible Labs
A rockin’ good beta test
After a year of product development and testing, the teams were finally ready for their first big beta test. So in September of 2018, they held one extraordinary rock show.
Because the teams needed to see how the M:NI product functioned at scale, they invited 200 concertgoers—a mix of deaf and hearing attendees—to an exclusive concert at the Life is Beautiful music festival in Las Vegas. The evening was a dream come true for both the Avnet and Not Impossible teams, but even more so for the audience. Not only did the product work fantastically—it brought forth tears of joy. Many of the deaf attendees were attending their first concert, ever. Others were able to enjoy a shared experience with their hearing friends and family for the first time. It was an experience unlike any other.
One part of a multi-year partnership
Next, the Avnet and Not Impossible teams will continue to refine the product experience and scale the solution for commercial use. “Music: Not Impossible is very close to where it should be, but there are still elements to refine,” Erich said. “More importantly, people will need to learn how to play Music: Not Impossible, as though it’s a new instrument. Ultimately, it comes back to feedback from the users and the artists who begin to incorporate the product into the experience of their music.”
But M:NI isn’t the only product the Avnet and Not Impossible Labs teams are collaborating on. As part of a multi-year partnership to create technology products that enhance accessibility and inclusivity, they’re developing VibroHealth™, a wearable technology that uses vibrations to help improve many of the common symptoms of debilitating illnesses, helping those affected to return to some of the activities they enjoy most. It leverages the same Vibrotextile™ technology Not Impossible Labs created for M:NI and applies it to a powerful need in the health and wellness space.
“At Not Impossible, we needed help scaling our creations so they could truly ‘help many,’” said Mick. “Avnet has done just that, time and time again, and they’ve done it for far bigger companies. Our partnership is special not just because of the team’s passion, but because of Avnet’s proven track record of being able to help products and companies scale. That’s why this partnership is the perfect marriage. It furthers our mission to ‘help one, help many.’”
“Avnet is amplifying our super powers,” Daniel said.