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Hands-free Jamboxx helps disabled play music, create art

Sunday, September 16, 2012
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Over the past five years, the Magic Flute has evolved into the Jamboxx. And while Dave Whalen and a few friends created the hands-free musical instrument with a specific user in mind, they're now looking to attract a much bigger market.

Whalen, a Glenville attorney and a quadriplegic, is now hoping to go mainstream with his harmonica-like instrument, which not only allows him to make music but also offers the opportunity to paint and to interact online without the use of his hands.

Wider availability

Originally designed as an aid to help physical therapists work with patients who either had no hands or couldn't use them, the Jamboxx, a much cheaper and more marketable version of the Magic Flute, is now going to be available to anyone hoping to make a little more noise.

"We're bringing to the market a virtual instrumental karaoke machine, and you don't have to learn how to play an instrument or learn to read musical notation," said Whalen, a Burnt Hills -Ballston Lake graduate who was badly injured in a skiing accident in 1981.

"Along with the music, I use it to paint and as a mouse to tool around the Internet. It allows you to play, synthetically, just about any instrument, and it gives you a real immersive experience without having to use your hands."

Netherlands connection

With the proper software hooked to a computer, the user creates music with the Jamboxx simply by blowing into the mouthpiece. The instrument is being used at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady, Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Scotia, the Arc of Delaware County, the Vancouver Adaptive Musical Society in British Columbia and in various centers in the Netherlands where Ruud Van der Wel, a physical therapist and musician in Amsterdam, helped Whalen develop the instrument.

Currently, there are 15 prototypes being used around the world by quadriplegics, but My Music Machines, the group Whalen has formed with his sister Suzanne Whalen of New Jersey, Mike DiCesare of Saratoga Springs and Doug Hamlin of Delmar, hopes to see that number increase greatly over the next couple of weeks.

The company is using the Kickstarter funding website to launch the product, and while Whalen continues to stress its importance as a therapeutic aid, the use of the Jamboxx won't be limited to hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Families with children, with or without disabilities, will now be able to afford their own instrument, and the hope is that musicians just looking to create a new sound will also be interested in the product.

"We're using our kickstarter.com campaign to try to raise money and take a close look at the market potential of this product," said DiCesare.

Mainstream market

"The best way to try to gauge that potential is through the Kickstarter campaign. Originally, the product was focused on the disability angle, but it's morphed into something much more mainstream than we first thought. We've now looked at it from a manufacturing standpoint, and we've looked into having it made inexpensively so that we will have the opportunity to make a lot of these if the demand is there."

CBM Fabrications of Burnt Hills was the original manufacturer of the Magic Flute, made with metal. Production of the Jamboxx will be handled by Harbec Plastics of Rochester, while 1st Playable Productions of Troy is writing the software. The goal for the kickstarter.com campaign is to raise $100,000 in preorders within 60 days.

"You basically put your goal up there, and you hope people will come to the site and place an order," said Hamlin, a paraplegic who was injured in a trampoline accident in 1983. "There are wild success stories where people seeking $100,000 got $10 million, and there are other stories where people got zero. What we've done is put together a video and spent a lot of time and effort. If Kickstarter doesn't work, then we just go back and do the marketing the conventional way."

Schenectady's Jim Luther, assistive director of technology at the Center for Disability Services in Albany, also worked with Whalen to develop the Jamboxx, as did Pauline Oliveros of the arts department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and a group of engineers and musicians from the University of Rochester.

Hamlin isn't sure just how much the Jamboxx will cost for individual buyers, but he says it will be affordable, and it will continue to undergo improvements.

"Dave has always been the visionary in this project, and his thinking is probably about two years ahead of where we are right now, and that's great," said Hamlin, whose background is in the computer software field. "That will make us forever unsatisfied, and we'll be constantly making improvements and changing our vision."

Crossing paths

Hamlin learned about the Jamboxx through a friend at RPI and remembered crossing paths with Whalen back in 1983 at Sunnyview Hospital soon after his accident. A native of Endicott, Hamlin originally came to the Albany area in 1978 to go to school at the University at Albany. DiCesare, who has worked in the banking and insurance business, met Whalen through his parents, who are Whalen's neighbors.

"My mother kept on telling me, 'You have to meet this guy,' " remembered DiCesare. "Well, I did finally, and it's amazing what he's done. This product is now being looked at by musicians looking for an alternative instrument that harnesses the ability of the computer with an easy-to-play device, and it's also being looked at by parents who would love to see this product make a difference in their child's life. Regardless of a disability or not, it encourages kids to play music and experiment with different instrumental sounds."

"Anyone who plays the electric guitar or keyboard can use their mouth and breath control to play a second instrument," said Whalen. "My dream is that some real kick-ass musicians are going to use this machine, and we do already have a few pre-orders from musicians. They'll be able to do some crazy things with the Jamboxx."

For more information, visit the group's website at jamboxx.com.

 
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