BassAware: Testing an affordable Personal Tactile Transducer in VR

Immersive experiences beg us to explore past audio-visual-only sensory cues to create a semblance of total immersion. The sensation of being able to physically “hear” sounds as a means of extending an environment around a guest in a headset is something I have been casually exploring. BassAware has created a wearable audio device that uses silent vibration to create a bass experience that you can actually feel. Recently, they were kind enough to let me take their gear for a spin.

The BassAware system is designed like holster that straps around your chest, placing a tactile transducer (a type of audio driver that creates vibrations instead of sounds) on your upper back. Despite the unisex label, the design is not female-friendly. Snapping the harness across the front of my chest with two bulky holders on each side was awkward and uncomfortable. The pocket holders on each side are there to hold the control boxes and presumably give you easy access to the dial determining the level of bass. The boxes were lightweight, but the strap across the chest didn’t comfortably fit any body type of the variety of female friends I asked to try on the gear.

BassAware has gotten a lot of attention in the music scene, so the first device I plugged it into was my iPhone. With Bose noise-reduction headphones on, I kicked on a bass-heavy Guetta track. The first sensation of the transducer vibrating along with the music was, literally, awesome. I instantly felt transported back to feeling of being in a nightclub. Standing in my living room, the sound felt bigger, more real, more… Fun.

Eager to experience it immersively, I swapped out my iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy and popped it into a GearVR.

I started with two pieces of cinematic VR content, Baobab’s “Invasion!” and Doug Limon’s “Invisible”. In both cases, when the score started playing and the transducer kicked in, it felt awkward rather than expansive. I adjusted the vibration control, continually trying to match the intensity of the music with the level of the vibration, but never quite managed to feel like the vibrations were “of the world” of the experience. Both pieces also have localized sound, which conflicted with having a single source vibrating in a central location on my back.

The VR experiences that worked best with BassAware were environments where the bass played into the psychology of the experience. Scares in horror experiences like “Sisters” and “Catatonic” were dramatically elevated. And, while I’m admittedly not a gamer, games were definitely more fun when you can feel feedback vibrating. I also tried a few immersive sports experiences that predictably didn’t have much bass and weren’t improved with the addition of this particular gear.

It turned out that what I had hoped the BassAware would be best for in VR, cinematic content, was actually the least compelling experience. And I never got the “entire body” experience – it always felt like the vibration was in between my shoulder blades.

But those riveting moments where BassAware prompted a solo silent rave in my living room and urged audible gasps in horror experiences (that I had already watched a dozen times) while wearing a very lightweight component is enough to keep me excited and continue exploring how we use tactile transducers in designing immersive experiences.

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