Harmonies Beyond Limits: Empowering Disabled Musicians Through VR

The historical development of newer technologies has consistently served the needs and capabilities of able-bodied users. The evolution of various technological innovations, from the earliest desktop computers to modern electric guitars, has been characterised by a design approach that presumes the user possesses fine motor skills.

For instance, playing a guitar necessitates the user’s ability to navigate the strings using fingers, which demands a high degree of manual dexterity. Similarly, interaction with electronic gadgets and devices such as pressing buttons, swiping screens and performing other touch-based gestures assumes the user’s capacity for precise motor control.

This bias of the developers towards able-bodied individuals has been a trend which has persisted throughout the history of technological development. The implicit assumption that users will possess the necessary fine motor skills to effectively engage with these novel products has often resulted in the exclusion or marginalisation of individuals with physical disabilities or impairments.

But with changing times, developers and innovative thinkers have started considering that there are a few users who do not conform to society’s yardstick of being normal. Be it the left-handed users or people without eyesight, there are some who have defied odds to merge into the mainstream.

Disabled musicians need more inclusivity in terms of motoring through their instruments. Accessible digital musical instruments (ADMIs) have also provided access to many musicians to make music when they experience barriers due to several impairments and social practices.

A charity named Brain Injury Matters works specifically on music research programmes for the disabled. This organisation in Northern Ireland helps disabled people play accessible virtual instruments through virtual reality (VR). They have found a way where, in the virtual world, these musicians with limited movement and motor skills can still tap on virtual instruments and make melody.

This is where a research group named Performance without Barriers comes into the picture. This group designs digital musical interfaces that are disabled musician-friendly. This engages the performers by looking at their distinct abilities and getting more out of them. In this way, VR technologies are developed keeping in mind their mobility, needs and creative interests.

A collaborative group known as Performance without Barriers, comprising professionals in electronic engineering, computer science, sonic arts research, immersive content design, a soloist ensemble and a community organisation supporting disabled musicians in their music creation, joined forces with a software developer from the United States. This partnership aimed to enhance the development of a VR musical instrument named the ‘Infinite Instrument,’ designed to operate on the HTC VIVE 360-degree VR headset. Their collective effort is focused on creating software tailored to accommodate musicians with diverse mobility challenges.

This team of researchers works at Sonic Laboratory situated in the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) in Queens’s University, Belfast’s School of Arts, English and Languages. Sonic laboratory has an immersive and fully customisable 3D sound space, often referred to as the ‘iMAX for the ears.’

This resulted in the adaptation of an existing tool to suit the needs of a musician with cerebral palsy engaging with a novel VR musical instrument. The customised instrument was tailored to accommodate her expressive upper-body gestures, eliminating the necessity for intricate arm or finger dexterity, which she lacked.

Utilising a VR headset, the haptic feedback from handheld controllers, typically used for menu navigation and command input, was modified to enable the musician to interact with the instrument through tactile and auditory cues rather than visual feedback from the headset. Furthermore, this setup facilitated in maintaining eye contact with the audience and fellow musicians during performances, as the musician no longer relied solely on visual cues from the headset.

This instrument was again used to collaborate with a blind performer. His proficiency in playing the clarinet was his strong suit, thus the plan was to leverage his expertise and improve his musical performance abilities by incorporating and refining them through VR technologies. Here, a visual headset was not relevant, so other immersive attributes of a musical environment were utilised and focused on. We should not forget that visual experiences are not the only features of VR technologies. They can be immersive in nature and give a 360-degree experience. This quality needs to be utilised more often to help and empower people with different abilities.

The developers placed greater emphasis on the VIVE controllers for the clarinet player due to their tactile nature rather than their visual aspects. These controllers have the ability to monitor physical positions within a given area, enabling the clarinetist to spatially arrange sounds within the 3D Sonic LAB by attaching the VIVE controller to their instrument.

The Drake Music in Northern Ireland is another project that works to provide access to children and adults with disabilities to make independent music. Technology-based workshops are held for composition and performance skills through computer-interface technology. With the help of this technology, skills are matched to an appropriate gestural interface that enables people with disabilities to express their creativity in an independent and controlled environment.

According to www.weforum.org, “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.”

This goes to show that where music, disability and technology meet, we can create innumerable opportunities for the people who are creative, talented, and need to be heard. Both people with disabilities and those without them meet on an equal platform to deliver music. VR technologies have made it possible to develop new, accessible musical instruments, help them bridge the gap, and bring smiling musicians together to create great music!

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