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Edinburgh Napier student's invention allows deaf people to experience music

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The National Student speaks to Daniel Pilley, final year student of Edinburgh Napier University, about his design for a product to help deaf people experience music. Inspired by a conversation that took place on his year abroad in Oslo, he’s looking forward to developing the device beyond his degree.

Image: Daniel Pilley courtesy of Edinburgh Napier University

Daniel explains his plans to refine and eventually commercialise his product, which has manifested itself in the form of a new kind of practice amp for musicians that converts audio into the physical movement of hundreds of curved plastic blades, arranged into a spiral-shaped dome-like structure. The player stands on top of this platform and the vibrations are communicated through the feet, enabling an extra dimension of perception to those with impaired hearing.

Initially, his idea outran his expertise and he had to “listen to people who knew better than [him]”, but through the project, he has gained an in-depth understanding of acoustic physics. The next step, he says, will be working out the electronics.

His project was part of his degree programme at Edinburgh Napier University. Daniel says: “We all have to do what’s called a major project, which is the big one at the end […] we get to decide what that is as well. And being musical myself, I always wanted to combine music with design in one way or another and it just felt natural to try and provide people who don't have the option to opt into music with that option. In this case, [those with] hearing impairments.”

"My project is an ambitious one, I kind of anticipated that I’m not going to be able to cure deafness within a year. That would be wild. The first step was to prove [the] technology. And then [came] the model. […] And then that gives it scope. It means I know what the next steps will be. So, if somebody did want to invest in me then they’d get their money’s worth.”

Raising the question of how the device would cope replicating different types of music and whether it could recreate the finer higher frequencies or delicate subtleties of classical music, Daniel tells me how, as it stands, the product is intended for single instrument, mono input, but that he has ambitions for larger scale sound simulation.

At the moment he sees the device as working with single musicians and perhaps simple band setups where the frequencies don’t cross over too much: “It leans towards soloist music, I think it would be fine for a band, say like for four members to play. I think that's also okay. But for the likes of an orchestra […] right now, it's a guitar amp or an amp that has a jack in it […] the guitar seemed like a good one to go for because it has a really wide range of sound.”

Daniel elaborates more on the help he received to develop his idea into functioning technology:

“My tutors were a huge help. I've got a good relationship with those guys. One of them actually did his PhD on vibrations in music […] and he's done a few experiments and tested things.”

He was struck by a particular moment of inspiration whilst on an Erasmus exchange in Oslo, where music was often the first point of connection when meeting new people. “I was sharing music with friends. You hear a song and you’re like - check this out. I did that quite a lot for one friend of mine and I think it was just because I was in a particularly critical frame of mind, I ended up kind of posing [the question] - what if you couldn’t do that […] if you had impaired hearing?” he says.

Daniel came to the inevitable conclusion that he would “probably just have to live with not being able to share” music with a profoundly deaf person. However, he was unwilling to let the thought go: “It just raw frustrated me that that is the case. This project is not about people having to like music. It's that some people don't even have a choice, and that sucks.”

The device operates on the principle of using vibrations to create a physical sensation in the absence of intangible auditory experience - something we have all gone through in one form or another at loud gigs or in clubs. This is often only something “felt” in the low registers, however, and Daniel explains how he got around this issue in his design: “In my stand [in the exhibition] that I’ve got there, I've got two spirals. One of them is a thicker material. Another is a thinner one. Originally, I just had to pick one in my testing, it was clear that thicker material favoured the lower end of frequency. So that's why I made the thinner one to test that theory. And sure enough, the thinner one favoured the upper range. A way around that is combining the two. Because I have a series of blades, that means that they don't all have to be the same density.”

Daniel considered various routes at the early stages of the project, such as bone conduction, but he says there is a “big misconception […] that it works in any level of deafness. That's not true. It relies on a functioning auditory cortex so that at least your brain can interpret it to an extent. There are levels of deafness where that doesn't exist, where that is completely shut down in the brain.”

Concluding the interview, Daniel says that he wants to take the design further. Having worked out the “raw technology”, he seeks to implement it fully in the future, given more “time and money”.

The Edinburgh Napier degree show has just come to an end, but anyone interested in finding out more about Daniel’ ambitious design is welcome to contact him at danielpilleydesign@gmail.com

You can read more about all the projects of Edinburgh Napier’s final year design students here.




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