Last week we were visited in Enable Ireland, Sandymount, by two of the most experienced practitioners working in the area of assistive music technology. Dr Tim Anderson http://www.inclusivemusic.org.uk/ and Elin Skogdal (SKUG) dropped by to talk about the new eyegaze music software they have been developing and to share some tips with the musicians from Enable Ireland Adult’s Services. Tim Anderson has been developing accessible music systems for the last 25 years. E-Scape which he developed, is the only MIDI composition and performance software designed from the ground up for users of alternative input methods (Switch, Joystick and now Eyegaze). Tim also works as an accessible music consultant for schools and councils. Elin Skogdal is a musician and educator based at the SKUG Centre. She has been using Assistive Music Technology in music education since 2001 and was one of those responsible for establishing the SKUG Centre. The SKUG Centre is located in Tromsø, Northern Norway. SKUG stands for “Performing Music Together Without Borders”, and the aim of the Centre is to provide opportunities for people who can’t use conventional instruments to play and learn music. SKUG is part of the mainstream art school of Tromsø (Tromsø Kulturskole), which provides opportunities for SKUG students to collaborate with other music and dance students and teachers. SKUG have students at all levels and ages – from young children to university students. If you would to like to know more about Elin’s work at SKUG click here to read a blog post from Apollo Ensemble.
Following the visit and workshop they sent us some more detailed information about the exciting new eyegaze music software they are currently developing Eye-Touch. We have included this in the paragraphs below. If you are interested in getting involved in their very user lead development process you can contact us here (comments below) and we will put you in touch with Tim and Elin.
‘Eye-touch’ (Funded by ‘NAV Hjelpemidler og tilrettelegging’ in 2017, and Stiftelsen Sophie’s Minde in 2018) is a software instrument being developed by the SKUG centre (Part of ‘Kulturskolen i Tromsø’), in collaboration with Dr. Tim Anderson, which enables people to learn and play music using only their eyes. It includes a built-in library of songs called ‘Play-screens’, with graphical buttons which play when you activate them.
Buttons are laid out on screen to suit the song and the player’s abilities, and can be of any size and colour, or show a picture. When you look at a button (using an eye-gaze tracking system such as Tobii or Rolltalk) it plays its musical content. You can also play buttons in other ways to utilise the screen’s attractive look: you can touch a touch-screen or smartboard, press switches or PC keys, or hit keys on a MIDI instrument.
The music within each button can either be musical notes played on a synthesised instrument, or an audio sample of any recorded sound, for example animal noises or sound effects. Sound samples can also be recordings of people’s voices speaking or singing words or phrases. So a child in a class group could play vocal phrases to lead the singing (‘call’), with the other children then answering by singing the ‘response’.
Pictured above, a pupil in Finland is trying out playing a screen with just three buttons, with musical phrases plus a sound effect of a roaring bear (popular with young players!). She has been using the system for just a few minutes, and was successfully playing the song, which proved very enjoyable and motivating for her.
SKUG’s experience from their previous prototype system has led to the incorporation of some innovative playing features, which distinguish it from other eyegaze music systems, and have been shown to enable people to play who couldn’t otherwise. These features provide an easy entry level, and we have found that they enable new users to start playing immediately and gain motivation. These support features can also be changed or removed by teachers to suit each player’s abilities, and most importantly, be able to evolve as a player practises and improves. One feature is to have the buttons in a sequence which can only be played in the right order, so the player can ‘look over’ other buttons to get to the next ‘correct’ button.
Here are two examples: The Play-screen below has buttons each containing a single note, arranged as a keyboard with colouring matching the Figurenotes scheme. A player with enough ability could learn a melody and play it by moving between the buttons in the empty space below. But by putting the buttons into a sequence order, the player is able to learn and play the melody far more easily – they can look over buttons to get to the next ‘correct’ button (note) of the song, without playing the buttons in between.
As well as illustrating a general theme, the facility to add pictures gives us many more possibilities. The Play-screen below left has buttons which show pictures and play sounds and music relating to J.S. Bach’s life story. The buttons could be played freely, but in this case have been put into a sequence order to illustrate his life chronologically. As before, a player can move through the buttons to play then in order, even though they are close together. But we may want to make them even bigger, and make the player’s job even easier, by setting to only display the ‘next’ button in the sequence (below right). So the other buttons are hidden, and the player only sees the button which is next to play, and can then move onto it.
There is also an accompanying text to tell the story which, if desired, can be displayed on screen via a built in ‘song-sheet’. Teachers can also make their own Play-screens by putting their own music into buttons – by either playing live on a MIDI keyboard, or recording their own sound samples. To further personalise a Play-screen for a pupil, people can also organise and edit all the visual aspects including adding their own pictures.
The Eye-Touch software is also very easy to install and operate – we have found it quick and easy to install it on school pupils’ eye-gaze tablets, and it worked for them straight away.
In January 2018 the SKUG team started a project to further develop Eye-Touch to expand the ways of playing, the creating and editing facilities for teachers, and the range of songs provided in the library.