Can you feel the music? Yes, as it turns out: the rise of haptic feedback
New technology means music isn’t only delivered through your eardrums – it can also get right under the skin
When people ask if you can “feel the music”, they don’t mean it literally. Music, after all, is an auditory experience, and while many headphone and speaker manufacturers promise a kind of sensory immersion, they’re only talking about hearing, not our sense of touch. The only time we actually “feel the music” is when it’s played at great volume, at concerts and in clubs where bass frequencies can actually be felt, providing us with a rush of excitement and euphoria. But what if that physical feeling were available to us whenever we wanted? That’s the aim of a genre of wearable technology that relates sound to touch, using haptic feedback to give us music that we can really feel.
“The original concept originated from a visit to a Berlin club,” says Daniel Buttner, chief executive of Lofelt, a German company at the forefront of audio haptics. “If you experienced that sound, and later you put on headphones to listen to the same music, it’s a disappointing experience. We wanted to bring some of this visceral music feeling to mobile music listening.” Lofelt’s flagship product, Basslet, is worn around the wrist like a watch, and translates the music you’re listening to on headphones into vibrations sent to the body. This idea piqued people’s imaginations at its unveiling in 2016, when more than half a million euros were pledged on crowdfunding site Kickstarter to make the product a reality.
The human sense of touch was long neglected by the world of technology, but in recent years that’s changed. The vibrating mobile phone alert was one of the first examples to come to the mass market, but that’s now developed into a whole range of haptic feedback on modern smartphones, with bumps and jolts corresponding with interactions on screen. Game controllers, virtual reality headsets and car seats have all seen the introduction of vibrating alerts of various kinds – but these vibrations generally correspond to things we see. Products such as Basslet aim to enhance what we hear, bringing a tactility to sound. And while it might sound like a gimmick, many studies beg to differ.
“The vibration adds intensity, and adds to the immersion in sound,” says Sebastian Merchel, professor of acoustics at TU Dresden, who has conducted experiments into human response to audio haptics. “It’s a form of presence – you could say that you’re touched by the sound.” One of Merchel’s studies, involving vibrations being delivered through a seat in tandem with a piece of classical music, convinced him of its appeal. “When I demonstrate the system to people and I switch the vibration off, they always ask me to put it back, saying that there’s something missing,” he says.
This is echoed by Mick Ebeling, chief executive of American company Not Impossible, which has created a set of wearables (harness, wristbands and ankle bands) that deliver a “Surround Body Experience”.
“The people who have experienced it, from famous musicians to concertgoers, tell us that it’s amazing,” he says. “And inevitably we’ll get an email or phone call from them the next day saying, ‘I was just listening to some music, but now I feel like I’m missing something.’”
The story of that product (which they call Music: Not Impossible, or MNI) comes not from the desire to recreate the physical sensation of loud music away from the concert hall, but from the needs of the deaf community. “It’s about the subtle nature of music, about granting that beauty and detail to people who wouldn’t normally have it,” he says. “But it’s not just about the pump of the bass or the bass drum. We’re able to create an ambient feeling that overwhelms your body, so when there’s, say, a guitar strum, you can feel a swell up and then a swell down. We’ve changed the experience of music solely through your eardrums, and we’re created a new input – through the skin.”
Scientists have long been interested in the link between touch and hearing. In the mid 20th century, Hungarian biophysicist Georg von Bekesy showed that elements of music had parallels with our sense of touch, and in the 1970s and 1980s, scientists explored ways in which deaf people could “hear” patterns of vibration on their skin. That understanding, coupled with the recent invention of ways to create vibrations that correspond with specific sounds, has created this new category of gadgets and gizmos. There’s the Subpac, a unit worn like a backpack to enhance one’s experience of music, games and film, which is already available in the UAE. Bodyrocks, a system comprising a belt and a number of “stones” you can affix to your person, is currently attracting tens of thousands of dollars in crowdfunding, while a full-body haptic vest called Ryg, made by a company called Woojer, was funded five times over on Kickstarter last month.
Merchel says it’s hard to pinpoint the reason why a combination of sound and physical sensation is so alluring to us – but a number of artists have also stumbled across the phenomenon. Back in 2006, composer Kaffe Matthews created an award-winning piece of work, the Sonic Bed, which played “music to feel”, rather than just listen to. “You only have to see the queues of old women and kids waiting for a ride in the Sonic Bed to realise that experiencing music as physical sensation – with a direct and intimate contact with your body – is a way in to the enjoyment of music,” she said in interview at the time.
Buttner believes that only the most dedicated music listeners will want to wear a special device to enhance the experience of what they’re hearing. “The visceral sensation of sound and music needs to be integrated into current listening devices such as headphones and car seats, and not require anything additional,” he says. But at the same time, it’s possible that this new world of tactile audio might be compelling enough for us to want it built into furniture or even clothing. “We’re excited not just about the ability of the deaf to experience music in this new way,” says Ebeling, “but how everybody’s experience of music is expanded.
“I think it’s going to move the art form, the religion of music forward.”
Published: December 3, 2018 05:47 PM