Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, Claire discovered she had a sensorineural hearing impairment from an early age. However, this did not stop her from developing a passion for music, and a curiosity for sensory perception. When she moved to France and joined Actronika as a UX designer, and later on a member of the R&D team. Here, she was able to dive deeper into her interest for haptics and how the technology can communicate information through the sense of touch.
Claire’s master’s project at ENSCI Les Ateliers gave her the first opportunity to develop a prototype which displayed vibrations to the body, for perception via extra-tympanic conduction (bone conduction). Following this project, she decided to pursue a PhD degree, in order to take the prototype development and fundamental research to a higher level. This eventually lead to the project in collaboration with the IRCAM STMS (Sciences et technologies de la musique et du son) laboratory , the Centre de recherche en design at ENSCI/ENS Paris-Saclay, and Actronika, a start-up specialized in vibrotactile technology.
With her partners, she finally started creating the ecosystem necessary to taking this perceptual, creative, and theoretical research further. While each of the project stakeholders contributed their specialized expertise (sound/music science, design research, haptics, and technical expertise), they all interacted through the PhD project and gained new knowledge as a result. Working together with her partners during the three years of her Ph.D., she materialized her research in a prototype called “the multimodal harness."
The multimodal harness is a wearable device that allows the user to perceive sound from the inside of their body via extra-tympanic conduction at nine points along the spine, clavicles, and ribs. The vibrotactile actuators situated at these points display vibrations that propagate to the inner ear through the inside of the body's musculoskeletal structures. The vibrations are also felt on the surface of the skin. As a result, the user receives a mixed audio-tactile experience that encourages them to question their body’s perceptual capacities, and their own assumptions about what it means to “hear”.
This research opens new possibilities in the research world, and also promises more inclusive auditory experiences through the development of novel products in the future. An audio-tactile product based on her research could allow users to enhance their experience of sound, with potential applications ranging from safety to entertainment.
If you want to learn more about this exciting research, we invite you to watch Claire's thesis defense on YouTube, recorded on February 23rd, 2023.
>Read also: Claire Richards: "Don't be afraid to follow what you want to do, even if you are intimidated by everything you don't know how to do"