I have organized a small team of graduate volunteers from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) working on a series of wireless, musical pressure sensors for a dance instructor in a local school for children with disabilities. The pressure sensors react when the force on the sensors crosses a certain threshold — whether by a foot, wheel, hand, or other appendage. When the force threshold is crossed, a radio transmitter sends a signal to a device connected to a computer that prompts it to play a corresponding sound, beat, or song segment. The sounds can be customized using a graphical user interface for each step, allowing the instructor to turn the sensors into musical instruments or beat generators. It can also be used to activate an entire song as well. The dance instructor hopes to use the sensors in a choreographed performance where students are playing beats of a song by pressing on the sensors in a variety of ways.

An early prototype of the sensors were a little buggy, but could generate tones. It was built using a vinyl material, a plastic type material called Velostat, copper wires, cheap radio transmitter, and a simple circuit using a microcontroller.

Musical Steps from Jason Beck on Vimeo.

In initial tests with one of the children, they wanted to be able to have more defined sounds be played. These were incorporated into the interface for uploading sounds.

The sensors were first developed through a partnership with a musical therapists who was utilizing song segments and sounds to motivate a child to walk. The initial conception was a 15 foot long mat that had predetermined steps on it where an sounds and song segments could be triggered. This was built using vinyl materials, aluminum tape, and a device called a Makey Makey.

We then started to think of different ways to give more flexibility in the item, allowing it to be arranged differently, be activated with various appendages, and include more children. This led us to explore more of a wireless option.

A recent visit to the dance instructor in the school has yielded more insights as we customize and adjust the device and sensors. They are being made little smaller than before, and now made of yoga mat. The circuit stays the same, but will be condensed and encased in material to avoid injury or breaking.

Picture shows the hand of an ITP student aligning a square cut of yoga mat. A notebook with pens and scissors sit in one corner.

More details about the build to come. If so inclined, the code for the simple user interface, individual microcontrollers, and receiver module can be found in the links below.

Github Documentation

Musical Mat Documentation