These days you can find MFA Design student Kelly Murphey spending eleven-hour days painting the set of Hay Fever. However, he likes to stay busy with projects ranging from lighting and set to sound design. During his first year at Tech, his work on a sound design project led to research in acoustics and his interest in "bone phone" technology.
"I wondered, 'How does that all work?' I'm not a mathematician or a scientist, but I became fascinated by the technology surrounding acoustics and bone conduction headphones."
At its core, "bone phones" are small earbuds that allow the wearer to hear internally through bone vibration. They bypass the eardrums by sending vibrations into the temporal bones creating the sensation that the sound comes from within your own head without blocking other external sounds.
"This technology has been around for a long time. It's been utilized to allow the deaf to hear again. The military uses it. But I wondered how we could take this technology that allows one to simultaneously hear internally and externally, and use it for the theatre."
Murphy's research has led to the writing of multiple research papers on the subject, one during his first year and a second paper intended to be the culmination of his prior research. Murphy credits Texas Tech alumnus Jacob Henry with sparking his interest in the project.
"Jacob Henry, another graduate student, had done research on binaural recordings utilizing a 360-degree soundscape and suggested it could be possible to use bone headphones in performance. Working together, we expanded upon the idea."
9 in the Morning, a twenty-minute play that follows a young woman who awakes after a confusing night, was Jacob Henry's thesis project (a review of the play written by Texas Tech PhD student Shane Strawbridge can be found at here). The play utilized bone headphones to allow the audience to hear the internal thoughts of the primary character in addition to text spoken live by performer Alex Webster. Murphy was heavily involved in the design and production, but primarily left Jacob to tie his own name to the show.
"9 in the Morning was just a concept at first; we didn't originally intend for it to be a show. It turned into a proof of concept for combining the two technologies of bone headphones and binaural audio into a live performance."
The show left Kelly inspired about the degree characters and audience members might be aware of internal dialogue.
"It's something more to play with. The idea that you can artistically open up the audience to the internal dialogue of an actor is potentially groundbreaking. Or a backstage crew could listen to the stage manager while keeping an ear out for anything else. If this technology is a possibility, it may change how one writes, directs, designs, or performs a show."
Murphy will present his research on bone conduction headphones and sound design during the United States Institute of Theatre Technology conference later this semester.