On a quiet morning in The Hague, I had the pleasure of meeting Tommy de Bruijn and Sam Van ‘t Oever, also known as De Naakte Ontwerpers. Tommy and Sam are two young designers who developed a device able of creating an experience which allows to listen not only through the ears, but also through the flesh.
Considering the skin as an extended eardrum, the Naakte Ontwerpers have designed a vest which enhances the experience of listening, bringing it to a higher level of perception. The starting point of their journey lies in their personal passions and obsessions, besides the will of sharing them with others.
De Naakte Ontwerpers gave material presence and shape to the need of redefining our way of feeling and sensing, in contemporary times. Despite the many occasions promoting hi-tech solutions of enhancing sensory experiences on which the designers could show their project, they seem to tackle the issues of listening and feeling in a way which values the visceral and primordial capacities of human beings, instead of envisioning futuristic ways of transforming them.
The project we talked about during the interview is called Resonate. It has been already exhibited in several locations; however they showed it mainly during art, media, and music festivals, such as Todaysart in The Hague.
Martina Raponi: There isn’t much information about you on the web, which maybe makes it easier for me, allowing me to start from the very beginning, asking you: who are you? And: why the name De Naakte Ontwerpers?
De Naakte Ontwerpers: This is a pretty difficult question! Maybe the reason why there’s no information about us is that we don’t really know who we are at the moment. We can tell you for sure though that we are Tommy and Sam. We were roommates, and also classmates at the Interactive/Media/Design department of KABK, Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. We started working together for our graduation project, which was basically the start of Resonate. Once we graduated, we asked ourselves wether to continue the project, and, convinced that if Resonate had to be developed further, we had to make it happen together, we founded a company and applied for funds.
As soon as we got financial support, we started the research phase, in order to develop Resonate as it can be seen today. Naakte Ontwerpers means ‘naked designers’, proverbially: “what you see is what you get”. The name is connected to the reason why we work together: we are bound by a strong friendhsip, therefore we tend to be always open and honest; this is exactly what we want to communicate with our work.
Martina Raponi: Resonate is what brought you together since the times at KABK, and it is the reason why you’re here today. Where did the idea of the project come from?
De Naakte Ontwerpers: We are both music lovers, and the idea comes from the merger of two different experiences. On the one hand the concerts, occasions on which a group of people is immersed in sound, on the other the act of listening to music in more intimate spaces, perhaps at home, preferably in the darkness. Resonate aims at combining these two experiences in order to allow the listener of losing him or herself in a music track.
A thing we remember clearly is when one of our favorite bands’ new album was released, and we, together with some other friends, gathered in Sam’s room in order to play that album loud. We ended up sitting motionless, totally absorbed by the music, for the whole duration of the album. It has been a really important moment: Resonate considers this kind of situation, making it even more intense through the use of vibrations. In order to somehow replicate that condition, we present Resonate in a closed environment, with dimmed lights. We created a pavilion for this purpose, and we think it helps the listeners to concentrate, and to abandon themselves to the absorption of the listening experience, without being distracted.
If you’re asking yourself how Resonate works, we can explain to you the technology’s mode of operation. We take a music file divided up in stems, so each instrument has its own track. We then make a custom composition of vibrations that match the different parts of the music up to the different sets of transducers in the suits. A music file containing input for transducers is then sent (from either a MacBook running Ableton Live or our Cymatic audio player) to our five custom-made amplifiers. A cable made up of ten stereo audio-cables runs from each amplifier to the suits. Usually all the amps and cables are hidden from view inside the roof of the Pavilion.
When a track is played, the listener is able of experience not only the sound through the headphones, but also the vibrations through the transducers present on the suit.
Martina Raponi: When I saw the pictures of your project I recalled a similar device, used mainly by producers: the subpac. How do you relate to this object? Did you know about its existence before starting Resonate?
De Naakte Ontwerpers: We discovered this technology during the research and production process. However, we need to point out the differences between Resonate and the subpac: the subpac covers just some frequencies, being just a subwoofer which can be worn on the back. It just amplifies the basses of a music track. On the contrary, we deliver a total experience. Resonate’s speakers are distributed across the entire upper part of the body, and they transmit tracks that we pre-program. This means that we create vibratory movements and waves which can render the specificity and quality of the sound played, be it a violin, a guitar, or a drum.
We deal with any kind of sound, and we create custom compositions of vibrations. We fractionate a song into stems, and we match each of them with a specific movement. It is an experience curated in detail.
Moreover, when we present the project during festivals, we contact artists who are in the program, in order to play their music through Resonate. By doing so, we offer a kind of experience which is not only complete in itself, but also in relation to the context. The idea of curating is extended also to the very moment in which the visitor/listener wears the suit, and immerses himself in the listening. We want everything to be perfect to the smallest details.
Martina Raponi: Talking about visitors/listeners: when you started designing Resonate, did you have a specific public in your mind?
De Naakte Ontwerpers: Sparking from personal interests and passions, the initial public for Resonate was composed of..us. By extension, we could say that Resonate addresses anybody. In specific contexts, like music festivals, it is easy to encounter visitors which represent somehow an inbuilt ideal audience: they are interested in music, and into its combination with arts, media, technology. However, having encountered all sorts of people, we understood that it doesn’t matter which kind of music you like, when you listen and feel a music track through Resonate. People tend to like it. If the public is more familiar with the selected tracks though, then the experience manages to become something really special. We think that anyway it is something that happens naturally, being an enhanced mode of listening.
Martina Raponi: We are talking now of listeners. Do you think Resonate could open up to being used also by musicians?
De Naakte Ontwerpers: During the first phases of research we were meeting many different experts, including musicians. Of course, it is possible to play while wearing the suit. The sound would be reproduced and directly transmitted to the speakers: basically a musician would be able to play an instrument while feeling on your skin something different from what you hear through the headphones. In this way, though, the lack of the pre-programming phase would render the result unmanageable and unpredictable. We think that there are even other, and perhaps more interesting, possibilities worth exploring. We are starting to do that just now, after finishing the first six suits.
Martina Raponi: At Todaysart you were in the section “Sensory Experience and Enhanced Realities”. What is your impression of that department? How did you react to the presence of very futuristic solutions and ideas? I am asking you this because you seem to be proposing an experience which, despite the technology involved, is deeply primordial.”
De Naakte Ontwerpers: At Todaysart we spent most of the time in our pavilion, in order to help visitors experience Resonate, and also because, being perfectionists, we really felt the need of communicating entirely the idea of curation which lies behind the entire apparatus of exhibition and interaction. We managed to see some projects from the Sensory Experience’s section, and we were vary glad of seeing how certain elements of the current technological landscape, or even elements of the very humand body, were taken and transformed into something different, and bigger: the augmented reality of the Oculus Rift, or the production of sounds using brain waves, for instance.
For what concerns us, we want to take the basic listening act and make it special. This is connected to the primordial feature of the tactile listening we evoke and display. When you are at a concert, or while you listen to music in general, sound hits you; there’s nothing more primordial than this encounter!
We recently attended a lecture in which they said that the human species is the only one having the sense of rhythm; apart from humans, there’s a couple of birds, and maybe the seal. It is a basic thing, we could dare to say it is inscribed in our genes: we listen to music and react to it. It is exactly this sensation, this emotion, that we want to intensify; anybody can relate to it.
Considering this, we present this enhanced sensation in a way which is so immersive that there’s no space for distraction. The different reactions to Resonate, mainly positive, are all due to the fact that it allows to reappropriate the lost habit of listening to music actively. It is a shame, if you think of how much money are spent by people for proper sound systems.
Martina Raponi: Reactions have been mainly positive then. I guess that part of the fascination derives from the aesthetical appearance of Resonate, which evokes scenarios like the Matrix’s, or similar ones. Do you have some stories regarding this?
De Naakte Ontwerpers: Of course! People’s reactions are something very very interesting to observe. As you said, and as many others told us, the appearance of Resonate is a bit startling at first glance, but when people try it, they change their mind!
We saw people coming out of the pavilion tearful and deeply moved. A visitor was so amazed by the experience that, as soon as he took off the suit, he started applauding, saying out loud emphatically and repeatedly: ‘this is real art!’. Another one stayed in the pavilion wearing the vest, absorbed by listening, for five or six tracks; that means for more or less half a hour. We were astonished! Enthusiasm has been also expressed by artists whose music has been used in Resonate, such as Lorenzo Senni.”
Martina Raponi: How do you think you will continue the development of the project? Do you imagine a wireless version of Resonate?
De Naakte Ontwerpers: Last year has been entirely dedicated to the development of Resonate as you can see it now, since we had the obligation of using the funds we received in a time span of exactly one year. It comes from this that our main aim was to create perfectly designed and functioning suits. The first version of Resonate was really bulky: it was made of leather, and the speakers were pretty big; it weighed ten kilos! We had a lot of work to do, but luckily we weren’t alone. The design of the vest has been perfectioned by a fashion collective from The Hague, called Das Leben Am Haverkamp. Apart from the suits, we then decided to create an environment which could host them. The pavilion in which Resonate is installed has been designed by an architect, Bob de Rijk. These two details became the main preoccupations we had; we can start thinking about the future just now.
The wireless possibility you mentioned has been considered, but the energy needed is too much. The basic elements of Resonate are transducers, and they need a lot of energy to function, being speakers which transmit vibrations onto surfaces. Until the day we will be able to get that quantity of energy without cables, Resonate as it is is the only viable option. We think it is the only one because, if we decided to lighten the design, and eliminate the cables, we would also have to make major cuts in the experience itself. So the impact of which the actual version of Resonate is capable would diminish. It wouldn’t function anymore at its highest potential.
We also think that aesthetically it is pretty appealing, we love the fact that the cables are visible, and that they are connected to the roof! For the moment we will go on showing Resonate as it is.
Martina Raponi: Speaking always of future. Is there a particular drive, or a hidden dream, which motivate you? For instance, do you imagine concert or dance halls laden with people wearing Resonate?
De Naakte Ontwerpers: Of course we imagined a similar scenario! Many people associate Resonate to Silent Discos. It goes without saying that when we will have more suits, making the project bigger, we will be able to create more ‘community’ situations. A doable idea, which is also very appealing to us, would be replicating somehow the situation we described at the beginning, and which is part of the genesis of Resonate, that is Listening Parties. Imagine of having the possibility of going to a place expressly thought for listening to new album releases, and imagine of doing it with Resonate: it would be awesome!
Many other people even suggested us to try to sell Resonate, but we don’t consider it as a product which could be sold to a general public. It makes more sense for us to put more effort into further developments. We want to go on curating the experience offered by Resonate, and the obsession for details makes it impossible for us to think of somebody using it without our supervision!
It is also important to add that we are rather motivated by thinking of ‘dream collaborations’ we would like to happen with artists and musicians we like very much, like Nicolas Jaar, among others.