David Ramsay is a double major in electrical engineering and music, with a minor in biomedical engineering. He'll soon be combining those pursuits with another – to study overseas – he's been selected to receive a Fulbright scholarship.
Ramsay will spend the fall at the Dublin Institute of Technology, where he plans to build an interface that will allow a disabled person to play a musical synthesizer.
"This is a different approach than most," Ramsay said. "The interfaces out there now are something therapeutic...but not musically complicated."
"I want to enable people to express themselves musically. "
In Dublin, he’ll first analyze the movements that a range of physically-disabled volunteers can make, and design an interface around the motions that would enable them to control and change sound.
Instead of using a keyboard or joystick to manipulate the sounds from a mini-synthesizer, Ramsay envisions an interface that uses motion sensors – something like the infrared cameras that track motion in Wii games – as the controller. Changing the distance and location of a hand or head or foot from the interface would change pitch, tone, volume and more. The system would be sophisticated enough to produce the sounds in real time.
To play, "will require practice and dedication," he said. "It may be frustrating to begin with. But it will enable users to feel the accomplishment of pursuing and making music."
Ramsay, a guitar player, has expanded into classical and jazz, but his heart lies in classic rock. For his senior project, he's building his own guitar pedals in the lab of Electrical Engineering Professor Kenneth A. Loparo. The pedals create different distortions than pedals commercially available.
He will design and build the interface under the guidance of Professor Ted Burke and Professor Eugene Coyle at The Dublin Institute of Technology.
Ramsay found that the U.S. is behind other countries when it comes to making music accessible to the disabled. He researched who was doing leading work, obtained their agreement to work with him and sought the Fulbright.
"This is research that needs to begin as soon as possible for 10 percent of the world's population," said Mary Rose Tichar, director of Cooperative Education at Case School of Engineering, who lobbied the Fulbright program on Ramsay's behalf.
"David's research has the potential for substantially improving the quality of life for physically disabled people worldwide."
Ramsay will spend the summer working at Bose in Boston and plans to meet with researchers at MIT who are developing an interface for quadriplegics and seek their input.
"The gift of music, creativity and expression changed my life," Ramsay said. "There are people who don't have that available and to think I can give them that opportunity is really humbling."
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