Rachel Balma, interactive designer, is earning her MFA at the School of Visual Arts. After suffering from partial hearing loss at a concert, she became interested in alternatives for children with sensory impairment. She hopes her design of a blanket through which music can be felt will not only improve the lives of users, but also will modify the perspective of the sensory-typical.
My name is Rachel Balma,
and I'm an MFA interaction design candidate
at the School of Visual Arts.
Interaction design is the study
of the relationships between people and people,
people and machines, and machines and machines.
There are so many different routes that it can take.
It could be the screen interface of an application,
or it could be designing the experience
of a patient going into a hospital.
I really care about elevating these ordinary moments
that we often overlook
and seeing where maybe I could improve that interaction
and build a bridge there.
I started off in undergrad as a classical singer.
I think that was and still is probably my most authentic way
of interfacing with the world.
In 2013, I went to a concert at Madison Square Garden,
and I suffered an acoustic trauma there.
I lost a little of my high-frequency hearing,
and I also acquired a condition called tinnitus,
which is a constant ringing in the ears
that I still have to this day.
So it was a huge sensory perception shift
and just, like, completely changed the way I heard.
It was especially difficult for me
because I had this background
where music was kind of, like,
my primary means of communicating.
And adjusting to that,
I started becoming more curious
about how other people perceive the world,
because it changed the way I perceived the world so fundamentally,
and I'd never considered that before,
what it must really feel like
to be in somebody else's sensory shoes.
I wanted to explore the experience of music
for people who don't have full control
of that sense of hearing.
The Elizabeth Seton Children's Center
is home to 169 medically complex children.
We've had some residents who are deaf or hard of hearing,
and the question is, how can you do music with them?
Rachel's idea for creating something
to help the children participate or experience music more fully,
I thought, was brilliant.
Music is a multisensory thing.
I think the bias is that you say "music,"
and I think the first thing someone will think of,
in terms of how they sense it, is they hear it,
but you also literally feel it.
Since the last time I saw you,
I've been working with Brian on kind of the part of this
that is going to actually attach to the guitar.
Rachel's project is a blanket that vibrates
with how I'm playing my music.
Imagine what you're hearing.
Imagine feeling that instead of hearing it.
Balma: So the blanket itself was not something
that occurred to me immediately.
I really wanted to make sure I was designing
within this community
and not just trying to be outside designing for.
I sat with James,
and a couple of the other therapists joined in,
and it was kind of more of that co-design process
that helped eke out the idea of this blanket.
Maxson: I think there's something special about it being a blanket.
It can adapt. It's soft. It is flexible.
It can be wrapped around somebody.
You can lay somebody on it.
There's something innate about that feeling
of warmth and comfort that comes from a blanket, too.
Balma: The first time going to test with the residents
at Elizabeth Seton Children's,
I was nervous.
I didn't know if what we'd been building all of this time
was going to be meaningful for them,
but that was just part of the process.
And, luckily, it was a good outcome.
Lucas: ♪ In music today ♪
[ Guitar plays ]
Maxson: We placed the blanket on the resident,
and we played music,
and we could see an immediate reaction.
She smiled, she moved.
She raised her arm, which might not seem like a lot,
but for for us and our residents,
like, signs like that are very, very profound,
and especially if it's coming because of the music
and because of something that we're communicating with them.
[ Guitar plays ]
♪ I heard you singing in music ♪
♪ I hear you singing ♪
I think the potential behind this is immense, is huge.
If it can help somebody make that connection
between sound and their own sense of self,
give them these experiences to express themselves,
to have fun, to be sad,
to be a part of something bigger,
to be a part of us,
that's, I think, where the true beauty of this can be.
I think art, in general,
either presents us with a new perspective
or asks us to take a new perspective.
It transports us,
and that's definitely something that I did intentionally
with this project.
It was kind of the answer
to an opportunity that I saw in the world,
but it was also a provocation to people who saw it,
who might not need the "solution,"
but to think about an experience we all share,
which is music, from a totally different perspective.
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