Not Impossible Labs, Zappos Hope to Make Concerts More Accessible for the Deaf -- and Cooler for Everyone
From the street, the Venice Beach headquarters of Not Impossible Labs looks more like a yoga studio than a tech company. Behind a wooden fence adorned with an inspirational quote in flowing cursive letters (“Most of all we wish for you to inspire and create a beautiful world today for everyone”) sits a modest but gorgeously restored Craftsman that was once the private residence of Not Impossible’s founder and CEO, Mick Ebeling. Today it’s home to a team of designers, programmers and engineers who, in Ebeling’s words, “look at the world for things that we consider to be absurd, then we figure out how we can use technology to solve [them].”
In the home’s backyard, I’m being strapped into a black vest as tightly as if it were a skydiving harness. Additional bands of black fabric, each concealing small motors and circuitry, are strapped to my wrists and ankles. I’m about to try out Not Impossible’s latest attempt to solve a perceived absurdity — in this case, the gap between how the deaf and hearing communities experience live music.
Many deaf people enjoy going to concerts as much as people who can hear, which is why a growing number of festivals and venues now provide ASL interpreters. The deaf perceive music mainly or entirely — depending on their degree of hearing loss — through low-end frequency vibrations from drums and heavy bass, which rumble through their entire bodies. For this reason, says Not Impossible’s director of technology Daniel Belquer, “When they go to a [traditional] live concert — which they love, because of the social aspect — they can feel left out.”
The deaf community stages its own concerts — but those, by contrast, can be difficult environments for their hearing friends and family members. Often, to get the most out of the bass vibrations, “they put the speakers facing the floor,” says Belquer, and dance barefoot. “The sound is really loud, a lot of low end. … People of hearing, when they go to these venues, they don’t feel well.”
Belquer, a classically trained composer who began researching sound vibrations in 2012, became obsessed with the idea of creating a technology that would, in Ebeling’s phrase, “increase audio inclusion” by allowing deaf and hearing music fans to experience the same concert in a similar way.
Four years of experimentation led to the “vibro-tactile” vest I’m now wearing in Not Impossible’s backyard. I’m among a handful of press and music industry insiders getting a private demo ahead of the launch of the new product, called Music: Not Impossible, which got its official unveiling with a private performance by Greta Van Fleet during the Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas.
“You’re gonna start feeling something in your ankles,” says Belquer, working a laptop and multichannel mixer that’s controlling my vibro-tactile attire. Sure enough, a pulse timed to a kickdrum throbs into my ankles and up through my legs. Gradually, he brings in other elements: the tap of a woodblock in my wrists, a bass line massaging my lower back, a harp tickling a melody across my chest. Working the faders of his mixer, he drops the various sounds in and out, or throws them from one part of the vest to another. “It’s completely flexible and modular. I can send any sound to any part of the body.”
The vibrations are so detailed that -- once I’ve identified the song playing -- they can cut the audio entirely and I can still follow all the parts. Sting’s bass dances across my back as they play the Police’s “Message in a Bottle.” The stomping rhythms of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” rattle up from my ankles. Though Not Impossible originally began developing this technology with the deaf community in mind, it’s easy to see why they quickly realized its impact on hearing people, as well. “When we started to experiment with this, we didn’t know that many deaf people,” Ebeling admits. “So we were experimenting with people who could hear. And people were losing their minds.”
To make sure the vest would also enhance the deaf community’s music experience, they brought in Mandy Harvey, a deaf singer-songwriter best known for her 2017 appearance on America’s Got Talent. Harvey, who lost her hearing at age 18, trained herself to regain her singing ability through a combination of muscle memory and using an electronic tuner to find her pitch. She now typically performs barefoot, using floor vibrations to keep the tempo, and faces her band to follow their movements. With Harvey’s feedback, the Not Impossible team was able to calibrate the harness so that she can sing along perfectly to a CD of her own music, without any visual cues at all. “When she did that, we were like, ‘Holy shit,’” says Ebeling. “The intricacies of music, we’ve now recreated so that a deaf person can experience it.”
I am not deaf, so I can’t pretend to know how someone with no hearing experiences Music: Not Impossible’s vibro-tactile technology. The closest thing I can compare it to from personal experience is the sensation of standing directly in front of a large bass speaker. In that scenario, with waves of low-frequency bass hitting every part of your body, you feel like a can of soda being shaken; it’s a pleasant, tingly sensation, but a totally enveloping one.
This is different. With 24 different touchpoints in the vest and wrist and ankle bracelets, the vibrations flow through you with much greater precision, representing a greater frequency range and much more detail in the song’s structure. When the Not Impossible team plays me a Tiesto track, I’m almost overwhelmed by the crescendoing synths and divebombing bass of a particularly epic drop.
Harvey, attending the Greta Van Fleet performance in Vegas — hosted by music industry veteran Jason Flom’s new venture, the Church of Rock & Roll — describes the experience from a deaf perspective: “The room was full of people experiencing a concert together. Yes, half of the room couldn’t hear the music, but the beauty of the night was that it didn’t matter,” she reports. “As one of the many deaf in the room, I finally felt like I was a part of the concert instead of just being on the outside looking in.”
Past Not Impossible projects have focused on the accessibility needs of specific communities. Often, they start with a single individual: Their first product, the Eyewriter, was developed to help a graffiti artist paralyzed by ALS return to drawing by using only eye movements. With Project Daniel, named after Sudanese boy who had lost both arms from a bomb, Ebeling and his team brought a 3D printer to that war-torn country and trained locals how to use it to make artificial limbs.
Music: Not Impossible represents the first time they’ll bring a product to mass market, with big assists from Avnet, an electronic manufacturing firm, and Zappos Adaptive, the online apparel company’s accessible division. Ebeling, who dresses and talks less like a tech entrepreneur and more like a surfer, says these new partners are “just dog-piling on” with Not Impossible to make their vibro-tactile technology both mass-producible and state-of-the-art. “So we’re able to be the Venice Beach, punk-rock, skateboarding Robin Hood do-gooders, but now we’ve built this alliance of people who see what we’re trying to do.”
Ebeling hopes that Music: Not Impossible will not only make the concert-going experience more inclusive, but also that producers, songwriters and musicians will find ways to incorporate it into their art “when they understand that this is now a new instrument, a new way to express themselves. Because you can design the audience. You can literally create a wave of sound that moves across [the crowd] … The ecosystem of how people are going to ingest and absorb and feel music now is truly limitless.”