Design, Interviews
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Interview: Stephen Barrass and his Singing Bowls

There’s nothing I love more than learning about what other people do for a living – why they do what they do and how they’ve ended up where they are today, especially when it is so far removed from what you do or have ever imagined doing. This sentiment could not be more apt than in relation to today’s interviewee, Associate Professor in Digital Design and Media Arts at the University of Canberra, Stephen Barrass.

So, what’s such a professor got to do with the themes of ‘who’d have thought?’ you ask? Well, it’s got a whole lot to do with his stainless steel singing bowls shaped from a year of blood pressure readings!  Who’d have thought, right?

Stephen Barrass with his Hypertension Singing Bowl

Stephen Barrass with his Hypertension Singing Bowl

Stephen’s background is a unique mix of sciences and the arts and is seriously impressive. He holds a PhD in Information Technology from the Australian National University and a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering from the University of NSW. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the Fraunhoffer Institute of Media Communication in Bonn from 1998-1999 where he worked in an immersive Virtual Environment called the CyberStage and developed sonifications of air-flow for automobile design applications, a virtual Geiger-counter for geological exploration, and an interactive visualisation of the Pastoral Symphony for the Beethoven House Museum. I mean, wow! But that’s not all …

Returning to Australia in 2000, he became the Creative Director for the Interactive Welcome Space which was one of five major media works commissioned for the opening of the National Museum of Australia. And from 2002 he was a senior researcher in the Immersive Media and Visualisation Systems group at the CSIRO ICT Centre, basicially working on a project that involved visualising satellite images of the outback … He’s done so much more since then, too – which you can read about here – but I’d like to cut to the chase to his singing bowls that are clearly a passion of his.

I stumbled upon Stephen when reading about the designs in this year’s Workshopped 13 Design Exhibition (which was on in Sydney in July) and came across his beautiful Hypertension Singing Bowl, designed to not only sound beautiful and help reduce stress but remind you to live healthily and reduce your blood pressure. It has also been entered into the eMagine – 3D laster sintering – design competition, which focuses on ‘innovative designs of previous impossible geometries to realise functionality, energy or material efficiencies or advancement in current practice’.

Confused yet? Don’t be because Stephen will make it all as clear as a bell …

Reading your CV, it sounds like your area of work is as much science as it is arts. Tell me what your ‘elevator pitch’ is. How do you succinctly explain to people what you do?

I’m interested in sonification which is the design of sounds to convey useful information. I’m also interested in digital design and fabrication with 3D printing. Putting those two things together results in what I have called Acoustic Sonification – the design of acoustic objects that produce sounds that convey useful information about some kind of data set.

What lead you into this highly specialised field?

When I was working at the CSIRO I was involved in a project on visualising satellite images of the outback, using colour schemes designed to reveal trends and correspondences. One day it occurred to me that the colouring process could also be used to make sounds, and I wondered whether listening could be another way to understand trends and correspondences. Four years later I had written one of the first PhD theses on data sonification.

Tell me about your Hypertension Singing Bowl. What was the reason for making it?

The singing bowl is part of an ongoing series of experiments where I am trying to work out techniques for doing Acoustic Sonification and to find out what it might be good for.

The first experiment was a piece of jewellery shaped from a data set that describes human spatial hearing. I called it the Compass of Hearing because the shape of the surface at each angle describes the way sound is filtered by the outer ear when it comes from that direction. One side of the Compass is for the left ear and the other side is the right ear. Because we each have uniquely differently shaped ears, each person’s Compass of Hearing is unique to them.

Compass of Hearing - Stephen Barrass

Compass of Hearing

Printing 3D CAD objects in stainless steel gave me the idea that the object could ring if it was shaped like a bell. So the next experiment was to map the data onto the outside of a bell shape. It rang just like a bell. The bell made from the left ear sounded different to the right ear, even though they looked similar, proving that it was possible to hear differences that were not easy to see.

Binaural Bells - Stephen Barrass

Binaural Bells

The Hypertension singing bowl scales up the size and explores a different sonic metaphor, a different way of mapping the data into shape and a different data set.

Where did the idea come from to base it around a person’s blood pressure readings?

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is called ‘the silent killer’ because the sufferers do not feel any symptoms. Yet it is a significant factor in many serious diseases, like stroke, heart attacks and kidney failure. Singing bowls have long been associated with stress reduction, meditation and alternative medicine. The idea of a singing bowl shaped from blood pressure readings uses sound to draw attention to the problem and is a reminder to live a healthy life-style.

How did you go about developing the idea and getting it from concept stage to an actual product?

The blood pressure readings were recorded with a cuff that you can purchase from any pharmacist. The readings measure systolic pressure (when the heart is contracted) over diastolic pressure (when it is relaxed), with 120/80 being a normal value. The readings were recorded in a spreadsheet that was read into a 3D graphics program written with a programming environment called Processing, which is a free open source tool that allows designers and artists to program interactive installations and artworks.

The bowl shape was modified with spokes, one for each reading. The thickness of the top of the spoke varies with systolic pressure and the lower half varies with diastolic pressure.

The CAD file was then uploaded to a digital fabrication service for 3D printing (e.g. Shapeways.com or i.materialise.com). The materials are costed per cubic centimetre, and stainless steel is typically AUS$10, while bronze is AUS$35. Two or three weeks later a parcel containing the object arrives by post on your doorstep. In the future the range of materials and size of bounding boxes will continue to expand, and hopefully the costs will come down.

Hypertension Singing Bowl by Stephen Barrass

Hypertension Singing Bowl

The Hypertension Singing Bowl was shown in the Embracing Innovation 3 exhibition at CraftsACT Centre for Design and Arts in Canberra during June 2013, and in the Workshopped 2013 Design exhibition at the SupaCentre in Sydney in July 2013.

What are your short-term and long-term goals for the Singing Bowl?

Singing bowls that are mass-produced by casting all sound similar.

Antique singing bowls that were hand beaten are highly sought after because they each have a unique sound. Digital fabrication also reintroduces the possibility to make bowls that produce a unique sound through custom shaping. This idea is borne out by the sound of the Hypertension singing bowl, which makes an unusual sibilant or hissing sound when it is struck and then produces a beating pulse as it rings. Have a look at this YouTube video to see the Hypertension Singing Bowl at work.

This suggests the possibility that digital fabrication can expand the timbral variety of singing bowls and other instruments. The next experiments will explore how sounds can be designed using shape and materials in 3D CAD as an alternative to electronic and computer music synthesis.

These experiments in ‘cymatic synthesis’ are inspired by the art and science of visualising acoustic vibrations called ‘cymatics’.

What would be your dream project – or have you already had it? Explain.

A choir of singing bowls, each shaped by the voice of a different person chanting their personal meditation mantra. These bowls would be larger and made from more musical bronze or brass, rather than stainless steel. It would be a dream to have them used in a concert or performance of some kind.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Right now I’m spending a lot of spare time thinking about cymatic synthesis. There are so many instruments to draw inspiration from, like thumb pianos, ubangs [clay hand drums] and gamelans [gongs]. Then there are interesting organic shapes like sea shells that make the sound of the sea when you hold them up to your ear. And then there are fractal 3D algorithms like the Mandelbulb that offer many other abstract shapes to draw upon …What new sounds and shapes can be made through the Acoustic Sonification process?

What’s one thing people don’t know about you?

I crocheted my own beanie. I’m not very good at crochet. You can probably tell …

Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought?’ moment?

Most of the other articles on whodhavethought.com involve up-cycling of some kind. That made me wonder whether it might be possible to use recycled metals in 3D printing. A quick web search reveals many projects that recycle gold, silver, copper and other metals from waste electronics and that recycled metals are already being used in laser sintering. That gave me the ‘who’d have thought moment’ that the next set of singing bowls could be up-cycled from mobile phones – it’s the beginning of ‘the Age of Urban Mining’.

What a fantastic concept! And thanks so much to Stephen for revealing the secrets to sonification and opening up a whole new world of singing bowls for those of us who were previously in the dark. 

For further and continuing information about Acoustic Sonification go to stephenbarrass.com.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Who’d have thought | swimming bird

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