Thanks to generous support from the Smurfit Kappa Foundation, over the last few months Enable Ireland AT Service have been running a pilot project we are calling See Hear Play. For this project we have put together two accessible classroom audio visual creativity kits and have loaned them out to two schools, along with training and support. This kit will enable a group of 6 to 8 students of all abilities to express their creativity through music, light, movement and visuals. Students who may have difficulty accessing traditional musical instruments can experience the joy of composing and performing music using their own Assistive Technology or using some of the alternative input options offered in the kit. Students who like to code and create, can design their own instruments or interactive installations. If music is not your thing, you can design and control the lighting or work on creating visuals. Do you want to put the wow factor into your end of term show while also demonstrating how technology can empower creativity and independence? If so read on…
We know that many pupils with disabilities in primary and junior cycle secondary schools can be excluded from participation in music and other arts activities due to the inaccessibility of musical instruments and other arts practices. Our main aim is to demonstrate to younger children with disabilities the potential that accessible technology offers. Having a cognitive or physical disability should not be a barrier to participating in creative audio-visual activities including music making, with peers in school. A range of technology is available which has made the composition and performance of music accessible to everyone. We would like to see the music curriculum evolve to be more open to the use of technology and in doing so, more inclusive of all abilities.
At the heart of the kit, or perhaps the brain would be a better analogy, we have a high spec Windows laptop running the award winning Apollo Ensemble software. Apollo Ensemble is Windows software that links together inputs from switches and movement sensors to outputs including sound, lighting and image. It can be used to create accessible musical instruments, interactive spaces and sensory environments to suit a wide range of individual abilities. You can choose from a wide range of different input devices, including MIDI controllers, assistive switch interfaces, games controllers and a range of wireless sensors and Assistive Technology. These can be linked to sound, image and lighting, through industry standard technologies such as MIDI and DMX.
Don’t worry if that all sounds a bit complicated, it really isn’t. The simple drag and drop Designer software helps you create new themes in seconds, whilst Launchpad is a stand-alone application for playing themes. Changing a setup is as simple as clicking on a new theme. We have also added a number of preprogramed themes to help people get started as well as training and support from the developer of the Apollo Ensemble system, Mark Hildred (@Apollo_Ensemble).
For many people with disabilities the main barrier to learning how to express oneself through music is the inaccessible design of traditional musical instruments. Historically the player was expected to learn how to work with the instrument design, which was itself dictated by the sound it was created to produce. Since computers and other analogue and digital sound sources have become available to us, there can be a clear division between the sound being produced and the interface to control this sound. This has resulted in mainstream digital musical instruments and control surfaces being among the most physically accessible type of hardware. Large tactile, well spaced buttons and knobs benefit both the musician in a dark club and the person with dexterity challenges. Apollo Ensemble will work with these (relatively) inexpensive mainstream Midi controllers but it also takes it a step further. What is unique to Apollo Ensemble is the ability to use familiar alternative input devices as musical control surfaces. Allowing music to be produced using switches, joysticks, eyegaze and movement lowers the barrier even further. It also works with video game controllers including the accessible and versatile Microsoft XAC!
I’m not going to list all the equipment here. Below are a couple of videos showing the kits as they are packed to send to the schools. I have to add a big thank you here to Johnny Q and the people in Verizon Ireland for giving us the Peli Cases. They work great for keeping everything safe in transit. Not included in these videos are the projectors and Compact LED PAR System (lights).
Development, Training and Support
Having Mark Hildred onboard for this project has been a massive bonus. Not only in relation to training and support, but having the ability to make software feature requests that can be delivered in a matter of weeks is not something I’ve experienced before. At the start of the project we requested compatibility with technology packed low cost MicroBit board. The MicroBit is easy to program and used in many schools to teach coding. In the context of the See Hear Play Project the MicroBit allows students to get really creative and design their own instruments or environments, react to movement, light or direction. Below is a demonstration of the MicroBit being used with Apollo Ensemble and a short introduction to the Microsoft MakeCode Apollo Ensemble blocks.
Since the schools have started working the kits they have come back with a couple more feature requests that we are very excited about. These probably deserve their own blog post so I’m not going to go into details here. Just to say one will allow eyegaze users participate in activities wirelessly on their own devices and the other will simplify the recording of user generated audio.
As with everyone else on the planet who was scheduled to begin a project in spring of 2020 we had to do a certain amount of readjusting to the new situation. Luckily we had already established a capacity to create eLearning and deliver training remotely. To a certain extent it has worked in our advantage. Mark has created a series of tutorial videos that provide an excellent introduction to Apollo Ensemble. We have added these to the See Hear Play course on our Moodle site enableirelandat.ie with other videos and resources. This course will outlive the project itself and hopefully help introduce others to AT for Creative Expression. Along with Microsoft Teams meetings and TeamViewer Remote support we are covering all the bases. Covid also influenced the kit hardware. Wireless devices became a priority to facilitate social distancing, which lead to the inclusion of the MicroBit devices and the new Eyegaze network feature.
If you work or attend a school and project is of interest to you please contact us. If funding became available we would love to expand it but we would also be happy to advise anybody interested in starting something similar. We are planning to host an online seminar in June this year. Everyone involved in this project will get the chance to reflect on what worked and what wasn’t so successful. There might even be a performance! If you would be interested in participating in this event please contact us so we can send you an invite.