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Why make a haptic metronome?

Many people have it as a life goal to learn an instrument, make music, or play in a band. But for just as many people, getting started with these things can feel intimidating or scary. A common tool to allow better musical collaboration is the metronome, however I personally felt like there is significant room for improvement over the current solutions. As a musician, your performance depends on your ability to create sound and a metronome going off in the background can interfere with that.

I decided to use a different sense other than hearing to keep the time during a musical session. Haptic technology, which uses our sense of touch to communicate information, allows this project to circumvent hearing and allow the musician to stay on time without interfering with their music. The goal of this project was to make playing in a band or a jam session more accessible by allowing band-mates to sync up using a metronome the avoided the problems of traditional metronomes.

Development Process

Before this class I had not had a lot of experience with Arduino, however it appeared to be the best technology for this project. The ability to have a small form factor as well as a fully-featured micro-controller really attracted me to Arduino. At the beginning of the project, the features that I wanted to implement were the ability to sync up multiple haptic metronomes to keep a whole band on track, have a master unit to adjust the tempo either via a tapped rhythm or dial, and finally to have a strong haptic feeling that was easy to sense during a performance.

I started out using a full-sized development board and some prototyping breadboard along with a haptic motor. The first prototype was a proof of concept to test the haptic motors. During tests I found out that using a transistor to make sure a full 5v was supplied to the motor was most efficient, as the RedBoard analog output can only go up to 3.3v. Housing / Casing will be a priority!

This second prototype was made using an old watch to better secure the motor to the wrist. Using a mini prototyping breadboard to manage electronics, this proof of concept allowed testers to identify the beat and count it out!

Challenges

During this project, I came across several roadblocks that helped me to think more critically about the project.

The first challenge was the technology. This was my first time really getting hands-on with a micro-controller, and while I learned a ton I definitely have room to learn even more! The Bluetooth tech in the board I chose was ideally going to allow for communication across units and allow for better musical collaboration. However in testing, the Bluetooth was not fast enough using my rudimentary code. Possibly with some more advanced timing algorithms to perhaps sync an internal clock, this could be avoided.

The second challenge was commercial viability. While this project was primarily a test of my fabrication skills, I still wanted to make sure it was something that would be useful to people. I already knew of other haptic metronome projects that exist, however at the beginning of the semester they were all extremely expensive ($300+). Since then, the best haptic metronome company recently released a new product at $99 that blows my project out of the water (the SoundBrenner Pulse if you’re interested). I had the chance to pitch this project during a TechStars spontaneous pitch session, and got a lot of great feedback from the judges who had concerns about pricing and how it could compete. This particular project might not make it to market, but this experience showed me just how exciting and fun it can be to work on a musical business.

Final Iteration

Conclusion

This project taught me a lot, but probably what it taught me the most is just how much I still have to learn when it comes to fabrication, technologies like Arduino, and the music business. I learned a ton about Arduino this semester, from what a bootloader is to how to hook up a motor to get the maximum power from it. I learned how to use LiPo batteries and what it takes to make an enclosure for your project.

Working with the class this semester was invigorating, challenging, and encouraging. Coming out of this project I feel like I have a lot to learn, but confident I can learn whatever I need to bring an idea I am passionate about to life. I am also so grateful for the support and help from my classmates this semester, for their ideas, contributions, and help throughout the last few months. I look forward to creating another musical device in the near future, and learning even more about music tech.