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Musical Instrument for People with Physical Disabilities

Project Herald was designed to be played with one hand to help those with physical disabilities be able to express themselves musically. Its creators, Joshua Hodge and Patricio Ordonez wanted to build a musical instrument that could be played by people with no prior musical experience. The structure with 4 nodes and customisable sound, without having to press any keys or strings, will help the users to be more focused on the expressivity, rather than the technical part.

The instrument uses the midi file to create random notes which follow the tendencies of the analysed song, allowing musical expression which is similar but not exactly the same.

Joshua and Patricio had to consult several experts to get some insights on how to build Herald and about its functionality. It was also important to do some research and see the advantages and disadvantages that the popular musical interfaces for disabled users have and find a way to build Herald around these drawbacks.

For example Soundbeam, which is a very good solution with a variety of uses because of its ultrasonic sensors but they found that its price can be an obstacle for many music therapy groups. Also, they found that having the light beams sitting on the mic can bring some confusion to the user.

Skoog the other famous interface, which contains a large sensor on each side and it’s programmable with an app, the experts said that it’s quite difficult to customise it, not allowing for long lasting user experience.

Bearing these in mind, they wanted to build an interface with little or no musical training and for deep user experience. Because of the limited time and financial restraints, they decided to use a low-cost circuit board, which would give the user the ability to use just one limb, without the need to use fingers to play individual notes.

The duo decided early on to use the Touch Board within their project as the board’s capacitive sensors can be used to trigger events with proximity sensing. After prototyping their idea with foil and taking inspiration from Human Instruments, they made the decision to use a flat design for their project as the user only needs a minimal range of motion. Therefore they painted the sensors with Electric Paint on a wooden board, covering the sensors with a protective silicone case to avoid smudging.

The two designers then implemented the software within open Frameworks, using the Touch Board to import data from the Touch Board into open Frameworks. In the end, they had a program that allowed the user to import a MIDI file, which gets analysed, and based on that analysis, a selection of sounds are played randomly. The user then has the choice to save this sound sequence. The largest obstacle Joshua and Patricio encountered was implementing the project in C++, which they haven’t had any experience in beforehand, but they overcame this through hard work and using Stack Overflow.

Joshua shared with us that the feedback they received from the prototype Herald was very positive and that they’re planning to build on this further. They’re thinking of options like polyphony or timing integration into the Markov Chain, quite complex ideas yet very exciting and challenging. There are also things that can be improved more easily, such as placing the Touch Board inside or underneath the design, so it doesn’t distract the user, or implementing the ability to drag and drop different midi files to easily change the songs.

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