I explored various fabrication methods to create a tangible prototype for assistive technology. I led a 3-person team to experiment with different ways for the visually impaired to learn and play music.
product concept // I wrote the pitch for the initial concept.
project lead // I managed the overall timeline, direction, and presentation of the project.
product design // I created the digital assets that we needed for physical prototyping. I had a hand throughout the experimental process.
Chromatic boxes are musical devices for the eyes, ears, and hands. These simple wooden boxes have embossed guitar chords that invite players to touch and interact with the box. Striking a lever on the side of the box plays the sound of the chord. A collection of chromatic boxes becomes a creative musical instrument in itself. But more than that, they teach new learners about playing music through tangible qualities and different modalities.
prototyping // lasercutting, 3D printing, embedded electronics
WHY MUSIC? DEFINING THE PROBLEM
During initial interviews with people with visual impairments, they imparted their conviction that a comfortable life and an enjoyable life are two different things. This difference resonated with me: though assistive technology is meant to improve the lives of people with disabilities, only a small subset of this work focuses on creating a more enjoyable life.
As I weighed different ideas for an open-ended prompt (using rapid fabrication for AT), I repeatedly turned to the benefits of music. Playing music is a hobby that can contribute to a more gratifying life, beyond the acquisition of specific musical skills. Moreover, learning to read musical notation is like learning a new language; it opens a new, shared expression of sound for novice musicians.
Music has been part of my life for a long time: I took piano lessons for ten years and taught myself guitar. Throughout this time, I’ve always relied on reading music. After researching the complexities of Braille music notation, I wanted to create a more intuitive mapping from the sound of a note to its notation, so that it is more accessible for new, visually impaired music players.
When I began this project, I had three main objectives:
• Experiment with fabrication methods to test the most effective ways of making music notation multisensory.
• Make playing music more accessible for new learners who feel that reading music is too daunting a barrier to overcome.
• The redesigned music notation system should adhere to the principles of universal design — it should be understood by both blind and seeing people.
Once I defined the concept, I wanted to build a prototype that users could interact with through different modalities—visual, tactile, and aural. I started with common guitar chords because tab notation could be easily understood by music players with varying levels of experience. In short, the guitar is accessible and a popular instrument to learn without an instructor.
After some testing with lasercutting and 3D printing techniques, my team and I decided to use the lasercutter for this prototype. During production, our 3D printers could not compete with the faster speed and higher accuracy of the lasercutter. My team and I tested materials of varying thicknesses, from cardstock to acrylic. However, we found that the initial materials did not provide enough affordance when cut. I realized that to emulate the raised feel of Braille, I had to invert the design and etch out the negative space of the material. This simple design change significantly improved the usefulness and usability of our prototype.
We continued to experiment with multiple variables (number of cuts, thickness of materials, intensity and speed of cuts). In the end, I switched from acrylic to wood for a more aesthetically-pleasing look and feel.
As a final touch, we incorporated an electronic component in the Chromatic Box—small speakers loaded with the sound of the guitar chord. By striking a button on the side of the box, the player can hear the sound of the chord. By feeling the top of the box, a visually impaired player can understand the configuration of the notes. By looking at the box, a sighted player can easily read the chord.
By creating this prototype, we tested the validity of rapid prototyping for assistive technology. In a sense, keeping these devices simple and encouraging anyone to fabricate them empowers democratic design. Given more time, we would conduct thorough interviews and usability tests with users before designing futher iterations of our prototype. I envision that by bringing tangible qualities to learning music, these simple, easy-to-make devices can become a suite of learning products for all music players.