Anyone who’s ever so much as snapped, clapped, or patted their belly with a bit of rhythm knows the human body can be a pretty decent music-maker—which is not to say that our au natural forms can’t be improved upon. As part of RISD’s six-week Digital Body: Hybrid Adornment course, Wesley Chau created Drop the Beat, a garment that looks like a bullet-proof vest but performs like a touch-activated electronic drum kit.
"Essentially, the studio focused on designing wearable technology and involved both the Apparel and Digital+Media departments," Chau tells Co.Design. It offered him the opportunity to dust off his own drum skills (honed in his pre-college days), and, ideally, provide new tools to shake up the staid state of many modern live shows. "I realized how static and sedentary digital musicians can be on stage these days. This motivated me to make a more interactive and dynamic way of creating music besides tapping on a stationary drum machine or tablet."
Another major source of inspiration was experimental maestro Laurie Anderson. Chau discovered her work in Japan during the Expo 2005 Aichi; after doing some research, he was particularly taken with the drum-suit dance sequence from Home of the Brave, her ultra-trippy multimedia concert film from 1986 that mashes-up music, spoken word, and performance art (check it out in full on YouTube here).
To bring Drop the Beat to life, Chau embedded four piezo sensors—which measure pressure—in neoprene drum pads, then programmed an Arduino to communicate with Apple’s GarageBand audio software. All the component parts were velcroed together, and he machine-sewed the whole thing himself. Filming the piece in action was a trip. "The video performance is by far the most elegant and successful use so far!" One of the models made the entire audio track on the vest, while another layered isolated sounds on top of that original; "She interpreted his creation with more dynamic movement," Chau says. He hopes to get up-and-coming musicians and DJs to try it out, too. With a little finesse, it seems like there’s definitely room to make a pretty fashionable collection, with audio-enabled accessories as well. "Wearable technology is no longer a dream of the future," he says. "It’s here and I’m excited to see society embrace it."