Author: Evangelos Voulvoutzis
Photo Credit: EyeHarp
For the last 3 years Zacharias Vamvakousis has been delivering music lessons to people with disabilities using the EyeHarp music interface. The software is the result of his research activity and is one of the first musical instrument to be played with the eyes.
Hi Mr. Vamvakousis, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What was the inspiration behind the social project Eyeharp?
In 2008 a musician friend of mine had a motorbike accident. Initially it was not clear whether he would move his arms again or not due to a spinal cord injury.
I then started researching whether there was any musical instrument available for people with upper limb disabilities. I found out that although the technology for creating such a digital musical instrument existed, that there was nothing available.
Back then I had a degree in informatics and classical accordion & harmony. I then moved to Barcelona to have a master in music computing at Pompeu Fabra University. The first prototype of the Eyeharp was the result of my Master’s thesis in 2011.
Eyeharp is considered to be “the first musical instrument that is played only with the eyes”. Were there any other options, until the creation of Eyeharp, that allowed people with disabilities to play music?
Eyeharp is the first digital musical instrument that allows playing music with the eyes (editor’s note: here is a 2011 publication detailing the origins of EyeHarp, and the technology it is based on).
Before the release of this software, there were solutions that allowed people with upper limb motor disabilities to play music through head movements.
Nevertheless the majority of people with upper limp motor disabilities are people with spastic disabilities and lack fine head motor movement. As the Eyeharp can also be played through head movements, we consider it the most accessible musical instrument for people with quadriplegia today.
Inclusivity plays a very important role in your project. According to “Union of Equality Strategy for the rights of persons with disabilities 2021-2030” the european union aims to achieve among other things, equal opportunities, equal participation in society and economy and no longer experience of discrimination for people with disabbilites. How does, or could, Eyeharp help to accomplish the targets stated above?
There are around 50 million people worldwide diagnosed with quadriplegia. If you look at a country like the UK, 34% of adults and 69% of children currently play a musical instrument there. Our vision is to bring music playing into the lives of as many people with upper limb disabilities as possible.
By providing access to the practice of music, we also provide access to all the known benefits of engaging with musical instruments. This includes improved cognitive skills, social skills, self esteem and better work opportunities.
Nowadays there are Eyeharp users that work as music composers and use the software as a music composition tool.
Some of these musicians have already performed in concerts and are part of bands. These are living examples of how music through Eyeharp can boost the sense of belonging in the life of people with disabilities. In the future we want to see more and more musicians with upper limb disabilities performing on music stages.
Your project has already been used across Europe. Which country or region seems to be more keen on trying Eyeharp and why do you think this happens?
Eyeharp was created and was developed in the last decade in Barcelona, Spain. Our collaborators are also mostly located in the same area. Therefore the majority of our users are located in Spain.
Nowadays, we are a non-profit organization that aims to further develop the software and spread its usage all around the world.
Apart from Spain a substantial number of people using Eyeharp exist all over Europe (mostly in the UK, Netherlands and Greece), other users can be found in the United States, Canada, Australia and countries of Latin America.
The organization of concerts in which Eyeharp musicians participate plays a very important part in its propagation. In the last few months, Eyeharp has become particularly popular in Greece where a few concerts have taken place with a very active new student we have there. She is a 22 year old girl diagnosed with cerebral palsy from Lesvos, Greece. Her name is Alexandra Kerlidou.
What is the level of expertise that someone must have in order to use or play with Eyeharp?
The only requirement is that the user can fixate on visual targets. Then with a few hours of practice weekly anyone can learn to play musical pieces. The cognitive abilities of people with cerebral palsy, which is the most common cause of quadriplegia, vary.
Depending on the cognitive skills of each person and the enthusiasm she demonstrates, the learning curve varies. It’s important to have in mind that, just like any other musical instrument, learning the Eyeharp requires practice. Nevertheless the software includes learning tools that accelerate music learning. Due to these tools the new Eyeharp students learn much faster than the first ones.
Eyeharp, other than the obvious social changes that it brings, has a very interesting technological aspect as well! From the eye tracker to the software, what was the biggest challenge when creating Eyeharp and why?
The biggest challenge has been designing music teaching methods for the new students. I am referring to finding the right ways to teach this new digital musical instrument. Since it is a software running on a computer we had the opportunity to include tools that accelerate music teaching. These tools are still being designed and improved.
What is the ultimate goal for the Eyeharp team? What do you aim to achieve and how can all of us help on that?
The ultimate is to have a substantial percentage of people with quadriplegia playing music and forming part of music bands in the future. In order to achieve that music therapists and music teachers have to be trained on using this new technology. Most importantly people have to get to know the existence of the new opportunities the Eyeharp offers.
The best way to achieve this is through live concerts, in which the public can witness that by using the Eyeharp, musicians with severe motor disabilities can perform music at the high level just like musicians without disabilities. So the best way you can help us is by spreading the news: people with severe motor disabilities can now play music at a high level.
Since Eyeharp is a non-profit organization we also count on your financial support. You can find ways to support us at our web page.
About the Author
Evangelos Voulvoutzis is Reworks Agora’s event coordinator.