How we're designing musical instruments with the help of disabled musicians and VR
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Franziska Schroeder, Queen's University Belfast and Matilde Meireles, Queen's University Belfast
Most new digital technologies tend to be designed with an able-bodied user in mind. The first desktop computers required fine motor skills to navigate software menus using a mouse, and mobile phones need users to press buttons, swipe screens, and so on. To use such technology a person needs to be fairly dexterous.In our Performance without Barriers research group, we design digital musical interfaces with disabled musicians in mind. This work engages disabled performers from the start of
Working togetherOur research team consists of a diverse group, including electronic engineers, computer scientists, sonic arts researchers, immersive content designers, a soloist ensemble and a local group that helps disabled musicians perform and compose their own music independently. Together with these musicians, we teamed up with a US software developer, who was designing a VR musical instrument called the “Infinite Instrument”, running on a 360° VR headset called HTC VIVE. The instrument was developed with able-bodied musicians in mind, so we designed it to take into account different types of mobilities. This led to one of our musicians with cerebral palsy playing a new VR instrument that was specifically designed to take into account her expressive upper body movements. It did not require her to use fine motor precision in her arms or fingers, which she does not possess. VR headsets are necessarily about what you see. However, we found that the tactile feedback from the hand-held controllers – through which a user accesses a menu and press commands to reach content – allowed this particular musician to play the instrument by feeling and hearing it, rather than seeing it through the headset. Not having to rely on the headset also meant she could maintain visual contact with other musicians during the performance. Another example of our collaborative VR design was working with a blind performer. Key to this musician
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Inclusive thinking and designThese bespoke VR instrument designs featured in a showcase concert in November 2018, where disabled musicians performed alongside musicians from the Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble. The audience was positioned in a circle closely surrounding the musicians in order to enhance the immersive experience of the performance space. The disability equipment market worldwide is estimated to increase to more than US$8 billion by 2020, and sales of disabled equipment in the UK have increased over 93% over the last ten years. All technologies, including VR, can be inclusive if the perspective of disabled people is part of their design. Our approach reveals how new technologies can be developed, that actively engage disabled musicians in music making and demonstrate a commitment to quality of life for disabled musicians. We will continue to design instruments that can be used in VR, but we will now focus on using more affordable systems, with a view to creating a virtual reality ensemble of disabled and able-bodied musicians. Franziska Schroeder, Senior
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