Physical music: How technology is transforming our experience of sound

Chris Fonseca is a London based Lyrical Hip hop dancer and choreographer. But Chris isn’t just any choreographer, his story is unique. It involves a piece of wearable tech called SubPac, and it’s transforming the way we experience music.

‘Dance is a best friend of mine; it goes through everything with me. To dance is a beautiful feeling – my medicine of stress release. Every challenge I’ve experienced has been overcome with dance.’

That’s Chris Fonseca, who became profoundly deaf at a young age when he contracted meningitis. In his early childhood he started dancing and this immense passion for the art continued, even though he was unable to hear the music he was dancing to. SubPac is a piece of wearable technology that’s changing this, shifting the focus of music from audio to physicality and asking us to feel what we’re listening to.

Chris describes what this new technology means, ‘SubPac means a lot for my dance career, especially when creating choreography. Previously I had to go through tracks again and again to make sure I’d felt all the beats. Having SubPac, now this struggle has stopped.’

Originally designed for gamers, SubPac is an interdisciplinary project involving engineers, entrepreneurs, artists and architects, all coming together to revolutionise the way we experience music. Rather than transmitting music as sound waves, as is the case when we normally play music, it sends vibrations, based on the beats of the music, through our bodies and allowing us to feel what we are listening to.

Steve Snooks or ‘Snooks’, audio engineer at SubPac, tells me a little more about how this pioneering technology works, ‘SubPac works using tactile transducers that accurately produce low frequency vibrations… You can think of a tactile transducer as a speaker without the cone, so the vibrations are going directly into your body, using your body as the medium to propagate sound waves instead of air.’

The SubPac is worn like a vest and can be connected to any sound system: instruments, stereos or a VR headset, creating a completely new and immersive way for us to understand music. But what does the SubPac really feel like to wear?

‘If you have ever been to a live gig or a club and felt bass or kick drums pulse through your body, that is pretty much what SubPac does without the dangerously high volume levels.’, Snooks describes. The vibrations felt throughout your body when wearing this intriguing piece of technology depend on the music you’re listening to, but amazingly, ‘You can easily make your eyes vibrate if you find the right frequencies!’, commented Snooks.

MTV, alongside the Year of Engineering, recently put Chris Fonseca and his SubPac through their paces. Chris was challenged to dance to the music he was feeling using his SubPac, with the speed increasing every 10-15 seconds. With ease and style, Chris sailed through the task, proving how transformative this piece of technology can be. You can see his bleep test challenge here.

For Chris, and others who are hard-of-hearing, SubPac allows them to connect with music in a way which would otherwise be impossible. Problems with accessibility still exist within the deaf community and back in January, Sally Reynolds was forced to take legal action as she struggled to get an interpreter for a Little Mix concert. This innovative technology has the potential to overcome

these issues of accessibility we often hear about by transforming the way the deaf community experience sound.

SubPac is a piece of technology which is allowing everyone to experience and enjoy music in a revolutionary way. As a choreographer it means that Chris can cover every beat of the music, allowing anyone of any ability to stay active and engage in the activities they love most. As Chris so nicely summaries: ‘Art is a freedom that has no rules nor boundaries. It shouldn’t define disability, size or colour. Dance is love.’

Rachel Kahn is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner Image: The Box (main room) at Ministry of Sound, Ministry of Sound Group Limited.

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