The future of music is for everyone—even the deaf

vibration enabled vests hanging on rack

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:

  1. The musicians playing on stage
  2. The sound and feeling of the audio from the speakers
  3. The vibration of the product’s actuators

illustration depicting sound traveling from musicians to audience

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.

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Many of the devices we interact with today are enabled by computers and connected to the Internet. Much of the popular interest in the Internet of Things (IoT) focuses on consumer electronics, with everything from smart refrigerators to thermostats,
man holding out his hand with icon overlay
The Internet of Everything is Here…or Is It?
March 18, 2017
The next great age of technology is the Internet of Things (IoT), if, that is, you believe everything you read on the Internet.
smart watch with IoT icons on the screen
Wearable Electronics: Four Approaches to Implement a Sensor Hub and Save Power
March 17, 2017
As more sensors are added to nearly every electronic device including smartphones, tablets and wearables, more power is needed to run sensor data and turn it into useful information.
America flag with WIFI icon
It’s Time For The Government And The Internet Of Things
March 15, 2017
The Internet of Things or IoT has become quite the well-known term in the past year or two. What started out as a radical concept – connecting everything to everything else and to the Internet!
IoT conceptual icons in cloud server room
IoT: More Than Just Cool Technology
By Alex Iuorio   -   March 14, 2017
I can’t remember the last time I read an article about the Internet of Things (IoT) that didn’t start with market projections about the phenomenal number of devices that will be enabled in the next five to 10 years.
nurse checking person wearing health monitoring system on wrist
Internet of Things: Designing Sensor-Based Devices with Coin Cell Batteries
March 11, 2017
A popular vision of the Internet of Things (IoT) is that it will comprise billions of sensors gathering information about their local environment and transmitting that data back to servers in the cloud. Such data will be compiled, analyzed and shared
hand holding smart phone with IoT icons emanating from the phone
Indispensable Building Blocks of Mobile IoT Devices
March 10, 2017
The concept of IoT connected devices connotes many different ideas. Some think of data centers full of servers, network switches and storage arrays aggregating untold gigabytes of random data. Others identify with Ethernet-enabled devices in their pl
woman looking at tablet on airplane
The Internet of Things at Cruising Altitude: Airlines and the IoT
March 10, 2017
What are your thoughts when you step onto an airplane? “Where’s my seat?” “Is this a Wi-Fi flight?” “I hope I make my connection.”
shiping yard vehicles, airplan with IoT icons overlay
How the IoT will Change the Supply Chain?
March 10, 2017
The potential applications of Internet of Things (IoT) technology across any industry or sector are vast. Existing and future IoT applications promise new ways of value creation and revenue streams for businesses in a digital world.
bee polinating a puple flower field
What’s All The Buzz About? Bees And Smart Map Technology
March 8, 2017
You’ve heard about the problems with the bees, right? Their population numbers are dwindling and that’s not good news.
two racks of hanging clothing
The Internet of Slacks? IoT and Smart Clothing
March 8, 2017
When you think of wearable technology you probably think about those fitness trackers that you wear on your wrist. What you probably don’t think about is your shirt, your pants or even your socks.
diagram of smartphone and connected devices
IoT Security: Real Problems and Solutions
By Guillaume Crinon   -   March 8, 2017
Learn about the real issues behind “IoT security,” and challenges for customers both from hardware and embedded / server software aspects.
key against a map of the world
Differentiated FPGAs Provide Security in Today’s Hyperconnected World
March 8, 2017
FPGAs offer the fastest way to integrate a specific design into a single device. See why an FPGA might be the perfect solution for your next project.
Yellow rainboots and gardening tools on flowerbed
The Internet of Things Has Thumbs – And They’re Green
March 8, 2017
It’s no surprise that technology, data and intelligent systems are transforming industrial agriculture.
man pointing to the word insurance
Risky Business: IoT’s Impact on Insurance
March 7, 2017
Risky Business: IoT’s Impact on Insurance By Steve Gereb August 25, 2016. I enjoy reading about how the data collected by Intelligent Systems will help people live better lives.
conceptual image of hand with legs and city background
Smart Cities: What To Look For In 2016 And Beyond
March 7, 2017
In a recent article in Government Technology, IDC research director Ruthbea Yesner Clarke discusses three trends emerging around the growing smart cities movement
woman on laptop with smart phone and smart watch
Will HaLow Open the Door for More Intelligent Systems?
March 7, 2017
Reporting on the recent announcement of the “long-awaited Wi-Fi HaLow standard for products incorporating IEEE 802.11ah wireless networking technology,” Jim Hunter of Tech Crunch explains why this new standard may pave the way for more connected
man holding tablet with chart image
Study: Digital Intelligence Driving Massive Business Transformation
March 7, 2017
The Internet of Things (IoT) is widely regarded as the next revolution in technology. Cisco predicts that by 2020, there will be 50 billion things connected to the Internet, generating revenues of $19 trillion.
bnr-one-click-manufacturing-could-It-really-be-that-easy
One-Click Manufacturing: Could It Really Be That Easy?
March 6, 2017
One click manufacturing (OCM) is a concept that arose from the 3D printing world: design a 3D model of a part ...
blue digital screen
LEDs: The Eyes and Ears of the Internet of Things
March 6, 2017
It may seem to be a stretch to assert that LEDs play a truly important role in the future of the Internet of Things. After all, by themselves, they’re just lights. However, with sensors tucked neatly inside and a bit of intelligence...
business man standing on small rowboat in the ocean
What To Do With All That Data
March 6, 2017
Just as important as the hardware and the data it collects in an Intelligent System are the tools we need to process and analyze information. Otherwise, an Intelligent System does nothing to serve our purposes.
blurry servers in a data center
Securing LED Networks in the Age of the Internet of Things
March 6, 2017
Recently, in Nuevo Arenal, a little sleepy village in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, a dozen criminals cut the lights to the town’s main street during the quiet 3 a.m. hour, and then injured...
graphic spelling out internet of things
Microsoft and GE Partnership to Make Industrial IoT More Accessible to Businesses
March 6, 2017
General Electric (GE) and Microsoft Corporation recently announced the beginning of a new alliance. The technology collaboration will make available GE’s Predix platform for Industrial Internet on the Microsoft Azure cloud for industrial businesses
tablet with iCloud image and IoT icons
Finding the Best Wireless Option for Your IoT Design
March 6, 2017
The Internet of Things (IoT) relies on a facile communications framework able to move data easily between embedded "things" and systems located at higher levels of the IoT hierarchy. For designers, a diverse set of wireless connectivity options...
beer taps in a row
Internet of Beer? Avnet Helps iKeg ‘Tap’ Into the Internet of Things
March 5, 2017
You might think that running out of beer is only a major concern if you are the “refreshment coordinator” for a college fraternity, but it turns out that beer inventory management is actually a pretty big deal for bar and restaurant owners these
cat and dog together on bed
Strange Bedfellows: Marketing and IT
March 5, 2017
The Internet of Things (IoT) is creating a special alliance between two business departments that aren’t always a natural fit: Marketing and IT.
military plane taking off
Defense/Aero Spinoffs Remain an Exceptional Source for Breakthrough Technology
March 5, 2017
Yes, automatic across the board cuts within the Department of Defense (DoD) will put the squeeze on many within the defense/aerospace supply chain.
hands with black gloves breaking into a laptop
Mitigating Cyber Attacks MCU Hardware Accelerators Boost
March 5, 2017
Over the years, cyber attacks on finacial institutions and news organizations have garnered the lion's share of attention...
conceptual image of IoT icons forming a cloud shape in a cloud server room
32-bit MCUs Penetrate IoT Ecosystem
March 3, 2017
While 8-bit and 16-bit MCUs are well suited for IoT end-node applications, the 32-bit MCU has a key function in the IoT pyramid: It provides the data throughput, reading sensors and sending real-time sensor data over an IP-based network.
hand navigating smart car dasboard
Automotive Electronics: Top 5 Tech Trends of Tomorrow’s Smart Cars
March 3, 2017
In the United States alone, motor vehicles travel well over four trillion miles each year according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.* To gain a sense of this distance, consider that while it takes light approximately eight minutes to travel
citi rooftops with conception IoT lights connected to one another
Antennas for RF Designs in the IoT
March 3, 2017
The physical connection for many IoT nodes leverages legacy wired networks found in homes, offices, schools, factories and other areas. As we become mobile, wireless physical connections are becoming the norm. Each wireless connection requires at lea
man touchign IoT wireless icons
Going Up? Elevators, Windows 10 And The Internet Of Things
March 2, 2017
People are excited about the Internet of Things for a variety of reasons. It’s already made us more connected. And as more and more things are connected, a number of industries are poised to become faster, more efficient and more reliable.
a fridge, diswasher, and smart phone on counter saying,
Alarm Bells Ring for Unsecured Connected Devices
March 2, 2017
A hot topic at the annual Black Hat cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas this summer was the increasing risk companies are facing with the Internet of Things (IoT).
network icons over an abstract color background
A “Canned” Module/IC Solution Simplifies Wireless Implementation, but Potential Design-in Issues Remain
March 2, 2017
Incorporating wireless connectivity into a product is now a standard design requirement for Wi-Fi, IoT, and other applications.
Pigeons perched on the side of a building
London’s Pigeon Population Flocks to IoT
February 25, 2017
In one of the strangest, most innovative uses of Intelligent Systems we’ve seen so far, DigitasLbi Creative Director Pierre Dequesnoy came up with the idea of using pigeons equipped with sensor-loaded backpacks to analyze pollution in the UK’s ca
leaves, colorful blocks with letter designations, CFL lightbulb in shape of flower
Internet of Things: Low Power, Low Cost Connected Devices Fuel Demand for Microco
February 25, 2017
At the heart of the devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT) are a variety of ultra low power microcontrollers (MCUs), sensor networks, systems-on-chip (SoC) and communications protocols such as ZigBee. These underlying technologies operate
cyber security chip on circuit board
IoT Proliferation Teeters on the Edge
By Alex Iuorio   -   February 6, 2017
Cybersecurity and the irony of what happened during U.S. President Barack Obama's January 12, 2015 speech to the Federal Trade Commission on the growing threat, during which he declared: “If we’re’re going to be connected, we’ve got to be pro
illustration of clouds with data storage symbols
The Internet of Things Pushes the Possibilities Offered by Big Data
January 29, 2017
The concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) encompasses things as tangible as a light switch, things as ethereal as a cloud, and all things in-between.
3D cityscape with IoT icons
Invest in the Future with IoT
January 20, 2017
You and I have known for a long time that connected devices are becoming pervasive throughout society, and it seems like the investment world is finally catching up.
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