We present a public usability study that provides preliminary results on the effectiveness of a universally designed system that conveys music and other sounds into tactile sensations. The system was displayed at a public science museum as part of a larger multimedia exhibit aimed at presenting a youths’ perspective on global warming and the environment. We compare two approaches to gathering user feedback about the system in a study that we conducted to assess user responses to the inclusion of a tactile display within the larger audio-visual exhibit; in one version, a human researcher administered the study, and in the other version, a touch screen computer was used to obtain responses. Both approaches were used to explore the public’s basic understanding of the tactile display within the context of the larger exhibit. We present a Model Human Cochlea (MHC), a sensory substitution technique and system that translates auditory information into vibrotactile stimuli using an ambient, tactile display. The model is used in the current study to translate music into discrete vibration signals displayed along the back of the body using a chair form factor. Voice coils facilitate the direct translation of auditory information onto the multiple discrete vibrotactile channels, which increases the potential to identify sections of the music that would otherwise be masked by the combined signal. One of the central goals of this work has been to improve accessibility to the emotional information expressed in music for users who are Deaf or hard of hearing. To this end, we present our prototype of the MHC, two models of sensory substitution to support the translation of existing and new music, and some of the design challenges encountered throughout the development process. Results of a series of experiments conducted to assess the effectiveness of the MHC are discussed, followed by an overview of future directions for this research.
Online version of an article originally published as: Designing the Model Human Cochlea: An Ambient Crossmodal Audio-Tactile Display. IEEE Transactions on Hepatics. July-September 2009 (vol. 2 no. 3).