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INCLUSIVE THEATER EXPERIENCE: Gwenyfar talks to Selina Harvey about performance arts reaching all-ability audiences

A vest from the company bHaptics could change the way people who are hearing impaired experience theatre. Photo by Selina Harvey

 

Selina Harvey is on a mission. The accessibility services specialist at Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center sees opportunity everywhere for more people to enjoy and experience the performing arts. Now, she gets to help beta test a new tool for communicating the experience of music to deaf people.  Well, actually, it is a tool developed for Video Gaming, but Harvey sees potential for the hearing impaired, and the company is curious to know what sort of response the deaf community might have to her proposal.

“This is the Unit TactSuit.” Harvey laid a box down on the table in front of us. “It is intended to help enhance VR play because you can feel the gun shots, and if you’re in a race car, you can feel the movement of it.”

The company, bHaptics, based out of Korea, is focused on creating virtual reality gaming, but an email from Harvey might expand their reach. She was looking for a vest that utilized haptics technology to allow deaf and hearing-impaired audiences to experience music at the Wilson Center. Haptics is a term used to refer to one of the three senses of touch humans experience: haptic, kinesthetic and cutaneous. Kinesthetic is the sense of movement and a body’s relationship to its surrounding environment. This is a sense you use actively when dancing, for example. Cutaneous sense relates to information transmitted through skin.  The experience of rubbing a hand on soft velvet or silk, or feeling hot or cold sensitivity, are all cutaneous sensations. Haptic sensation is the experience of moving, like grabbing or lifting something. A haptic vest has points that vibrate to create a response sensation in the wearer.

As Harvey told me quickly, not all haptics vests are created equally, nor are they easily accessible. Her search for a haptics vest started with the Kenny G concert in November 2019 at the Wilson Center.

“I tried to hunt one down we could rent,” Harvey recalls. “We had a deaf guest coming to Kenny G and it’s all instrumental. As I was reaching out to interpreters locally, saying ‘Can you come in and interpret this for me?’, they were like, ‘Yeah, but what are they interpreting?’”

A vest that makes the music come alive on the wearer’s body would be a remarkable interpretive solution. The vibrating points on the vest react to the music and literally make it feel like the user is experiencing the song.

“I called everywhere, calling every sound company within 100 miles of here,” Harvey recalls. “Nobody had ever head of it. Nobody had any idea what I was talking about. Everybody thought it was a really cool idea. Everybody was like, ‘If you find them, let us know. We would love to try them.’”

After a lot of searching, Harvey located a haptics vest for sale on eBay for $600. “I believe it had four or six points in the front and then the same amount in the back, which is a lot,” she says. Compared to other models she had located that were older with fewer haptics points, it looked like a good deal. In fact, a touring company coming through brought older model haptics vests for her to try and she was supremely disappointed. “My cell phone vibrated more.” She shook her head. But that was an item designed with deaf people in mind that could run through the soundboard at the theatre, working with an existing assisted listening device system the Wilson Center has available for hard-of-hearing patrons. On one hand, it was great she got to test it before the Wilson Center bought several, but she was determined to find something better to offer patrons.

While lost in an internet rabbit hole related to haptics, she came across the bHaptics company. “I was like ‘Holy crap—gamers!’ I forgot that’s like a thing. ‘Cause you don’t think of haptics as a thing a lot of people use, but it is something used a lot in gaming.”

While looking through the site, she was surprised to find a request for beta testers. She filled out a generic form and tried to get her beautifully worded plea down to 200 characters. “I was completely honest with them; I said, ‘ I’m interested in this for entirely different reasons than you guys are offering it. I work at a beautiful theatre in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I want to make sure music is accessible to everybody. I could use your vest for deaf people and it could be a whole new experience.’ They emailed me back within 45 minutes!”

Two weeks later the vest arrived. Harvey says it was like Christmas morning when it appeared. “When I pulled it out of the box, I was a little bit worried because it looked kind of small, but it’s completely adjustable.”    

There are 40 haptics points on the vest. The difference between it and the previous one Harvey tried was noticeable. She immediately hooked it up to her phone and put on Beyonce’s “Lemonade.” “I certainly know that song back to front, I’m going to know if it feels like that song—and it was stunning.”

The only stipulation bHaptics placed on the vest was it couldn’t be used for a ticketed event quite yet. “They’re in the middle of releasing a new app, so I think they have paused on maintaining the current app,” Harvey explains. But people can come by the Wilson Center to try it and to give feedback on the experience. bHaptics’ response to Harvey was that of excitement and a willingness to garner feedback before moving forward. “They said they would consider creating a second line of these vests that focused just on music … [for] the deaf community,” Harvey says.   

Finding a vest with a similar number of points and capabilities, designed and marketed for deaf people, came in at almost twelve times the price. “If we can help get the word out in this very different field, they might be willing to help us,” she adds. This tool would create more opportunities for more people to experience the performing arts.

In addition to her work with the Wilson Center, Harvey is piloting a program with Opera House Theatre Company to provide sign-language interpreters on the second Friday of every show in their 2020 season at Thalian Hall. “[She] pitched the idea and I couldn’t get on board fast enough,” artistic director Justin Smith tells. Smith is involved with the Wilson’s Center’s development project with “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (a work-in-progress musical adaptation from Ben Wong and Wayne Barker based on the film). One of the characters in the show is deaf, and the actor developing the character is as well. Consequently, sign language interpreters are part of the process.

“I was amazed how moving and not distracting the sign language interpreters were,” Smith says. During their January run of “La Cage aux Folles” two interpreters were placed house right under one of the opera boxes for a test run during a performance. It was very well received.  Smith is thrilled. “I want theater to be inclusive for all people,” he says.

Thalian Hall Box Office asks of audiences who are attending on an evening when interpreters are available to please let the box office know any needs at the time of reservation. Thus they can seat appropriately in clear view of the interpreters.

In the meantime, anyone interested in beta testing the bHaptics vest can email Selina Harvey at Selinaharvey@CFCC.edu.

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