Senior Design: Where Music Meets Engineering

Headshots of four students
Clockwise from top left: Bethany Pittman, Celine Khoo, Daniel Rodriguez, Rhea Dutta

When we listen to music, our bodies can release dopamine, giving our brains the same kind of chemical reaction as when we feel pleasure. But can music actually make you feel something truly physical? A team of senior design students are exploring the concept.

Working with Drexel’s Expressive and Creative Interactive Technologies (ExCITe) Center and guest artist and collaborator Daniel Belquer, the team of electrical and computer engineering students is using technology to translate music into light and vibrations in a unique intermedia art project called ASTROCELIUM. The project will include a live concert on Saturday, May 7 at the iMPeRFeCT Gallery in Germantown.

“Our contribution to the project is to create a computer-controlled sculpture that is part speaker, part instrument,” explains Rhea Dutta, a BS student in electrical and computer engineering and MS student in cyber security. “The sculpture incorporates both technology and nature. It’s made partially from mycelium, which is the roots of a mushroom, and from vines. The vines are hooked up to sensors to measure any reaction they have to the music, which will then be translated into light or vibration.”

The vibration will be felt by audience members who are wearing special haptic suits, which are equipped a vest and wristbands that have more than 24 points of vibration between them. The concept, Belquer explains, is inspired by technology used to help the deaf and hard of hearing population experience music. Belquer is co-founder and CTO of Music: Not Impossible, a wearable technology company that translates music to vibration for just that reason.

“One popular solution to help those with hearing differences experience music was to place amps facing the ground, but that would only let them experience vibrations from lower notes,” he says. “The Music: Not Impossible suit can translate a wide range of frequencies, giving the wearer a fuller experience.”

But music isn’t the only thing that will be creating haptic feedback.

“Daniel will be wearing an EEG headband to monitor his brain activity while he performs,” says Celine Khoo, a BS/MS electrical and computer engineering student. “That will be sent to our computer and translated so that there’s live brainwave data affecting the performance as well.”

Belquer says that he hopes ASTROCELIUM and performances like it can level the playing field for people who want to enjoy music as an art.

“Everyone wearing the suit at the performance, hard of hearing or not, will have the same experience while attending the performance,” he says.

For electrical engineering major Bethany Pittman, the project’s mission was an added bonus to her senior design experience.

"I loved the integration of engineering and art in this project, but I also was inspired by the project's meaningful message and the opportunity to help people of all backgrounds enjoy art," she says. “This project was a wonderful opportunity to apply many hardware and the software concepts that I learned throughout my years at Drexel.”

Likewise, computer engineering major Daniel Rodriguez appreciated the ability to mix and match skills he had learned as a student.

“Going into senior design I knew I wanted to do a project that involved both hardware and software,” he says. “After learning about this idea Daniel had, I was really interested in many of the engineering and musical aspects. I thought this project would be fun and tie in a lot of the computer and electrical engineering skills I've learned over the years.”