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April 15, 2010

'Emotichair' helps people feel the music

Posted: 11:19 AM ET

Say you're watching a scary movie. The tension builds. The villain is about to grab someone. There's no dialogue, just ominous music.

If you can't hear, all you get is a caption that may say something like "scary music playing."

"Of course, that's not very scary at all, and, in fact, it probably takes away from the experience," said Carmen Branje, a researcher at the Center for Learning Technology in Toronto, Canada.

That makes it hard to really get an emotional sense of what's going on.

Cue a possible solution: Find a way to make people, especially those who can't hear, actually feel the music.

That's the idea behind a prototype called the Emotichair, which Branje and colleague Maria Karam demonstrated this week at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference here in Atlanta, Georgia.

Emotichair is basically just a camping chair fitted with speakers that play at different frequencies, vibrating a person's upper back with high pitches and the bottom of a person's thighs with lower ranges.

All of the emotional content of a song may not come across in these vibrations, Branje concedes, but he says much of it does.

"You experience the play between the different elements of the music," he said. "And what we've found is people were able to tell the emotion of the piece" just by feeling it vibrate their back and legs.

Karam, who said the Emotichair has been 4 years and $500,000 in development, said the chair essentially makes a person hear with their body.

"We're just turning your skin into a cochlea," she said. "Your skin is going to be like an ear."

The Emotichair concept will be available for purchase starting in September. One chair costs between $500 and $1,000, and the chairs likely will be tested in two Canadian movie theaters in coming months, she said.

One big problem with the chair: It's super noisy. Low-quality speakers create the vibrations on the back of the chair, and they buzz and bark while the chair is in use. That could be a problem in movie theater or concert settings, although Karam said the chair has been used at acoustic concerts with no problem.

What do you think? Does the chair sound useful, particularly for deaf people or those who are hard of hearing? Or is it just an expensive gimmick?

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Filed under: Music • technology


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