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The Hug Drum, a "Yuru" Musical InstrumentAn Inclusive Percussion Instrument
That Allows Anyone to Join a Jam Session

Each of us has different reasons for wanting to play a musical instrument.
So how can we get rid of the obstacles for playing an instrument,
to make it accessible to everyone—from children to beginners to those with disabilities?
At the Sony Creative Center, we are working with Sony Music Entertainment to develop
“yuru” musical instruments ("yuru" in Japanese meaning free, generous, flexible,
and approachable, amongst a range of other nuanced meanings) that are accessible to all.

One of these, a percussion instrument that can be played alongside beginners,
young children, and those who are hard of hearing, is called the Hug Drum.
Our current goal, with the help of lead users with hearing impairments,
and musicians like Kavka Shishido, is to organize a stage performance. But how do you design
the kind of "magical" instrument that brings smiles to everyone's faces, from the performers
to the audience? In this article, two designers revisit the project, discussing
their inclusive design approach and the prototyping process.

From left to right (Sony Group Creative Center): Rui Morisawa, Miho Akita

The Inclusive Design-Based
"Yuru" Musical Instruments Project

Music has the power to move people’s hearts. These experiences often evoke a great admiration for music: “Think about how fun it would be if I could play any kind of music I wanted!” But learning to play an instrument is not easy. Perhaps you cannot read sheet music, or are not confident in your sense of rhythm. Perhaps you tried to learn, but it was too hard, and you gave up. Perhaps you are scared of playing the wrong notes. There are all different kinds of challenges standing in the way of a person learning an instrument.
One organization that is working to solve this issue is the World Yuru Music Association. By developing and promoting "yuru" instruments, they are working to deliver the joy of playing music to as many people as possible.

Sony Music Entertainment (SME) and the Sony Creative Center are also participants in this "yuru" Musical Instruments project. Their contributions include the Ultra Light Sax, which you play just by humming, followed by the aforementioned Hug Drum, a percussion instrument that anyone can play.
But how best to design a percussion instrument that can be played not only by small children and beginners, but also those who are hard of hearing, particularly if they are to play alongside professional musicians? The answer when it comes to this project has been inclusive design—a methodology that involves collaborating with various lead users, such as those with disabilities or the elderly, to expand the range of design possibilities.
This particular project brought in Nobuhiko Okazaki and Ryoji Nakagawa, both of whom are hard of hearing and who work as sign language performers, and Sony employee Kuniyo Oishi, with professional musicians like Kavka Shishido serving as mentors.
This project has been an opportunity to discover hints for new designs, working with a variety of people. Here, two of the designers involved discuss how the project has gone so far, and their hopes when it comes to the future.

How did you become involved in the "Yuru" Musical Instruments project?

AkitaWe learned that SME was developing "yuru" musical instruments, and felt that there was considerable overlap between that project and the Creative Center's inclusive design efforts. While I personally don't play any instruments, I'd always had a deep admiration for music, and very much wanted to take part in the project. I worked on the design for the Ultra Light Sax, which SME was prototyping at the time, and I've been involved in the development of the Hug Drum from the beginning of the research stages.

MorisawaWhen I was in my twenties, I'd been a DJ and made songs with my friends. But I hadn't played much music since. Getting to be involved in the development of the Hug Drum from the start had me digging up old samplers, sequencers, and other instruments, even getting back into soldering and other craftwork—my experience from my past coming in useful in a way I never would have imagined.

AkitaIn a nutshell, the Ultra Light Sax—which came before the Hug Drum—is a saxophone that anyone can play just by humming, without the need for any complex maneuvers. Inside its clear body is the core unit of the instrument, the "Yuru Core," which analyzes the tones of the human voice and converts them into the sounds of various musical instruments. This is what converts the sound of humming into the sound of the instrument. Because this "Yuru Core" is the only component necessary, there weren't any design restrictions when it came to the shape of the instrument. In fact, the prototype in the early stages of development was shaped like a paper cup. But eventually we decided to give it a purposely instrument-like design, because it was easier to imagine someone playing something saxophone-like, and also out of consideration for its portability and usability.

Ultra Light Sax | A Musical Instrument That Anyone Can Play

Why did you decide on a percussion instrument for the second "yuru" instrument after the saxophone?

MorisawaOur goal at that point was already to develop an instrument that those facing difficulty playing instruments and those with hearing impairments would be able to play alongside others. We conducted workshops and engaged in research alongside various lead users, such as those with difficulty moving their limbs or who are hard of hearing, including employees from Sony Taiyo Corporation, and learned their opinions on many different types of instruments. It was during this process that we began considering the drum, for its simplicity and more primitive nature, and the fact that it could be played by a wider range of people.

AkitaAt the workshops, we asked them to interact not only with actual musical instruments, but also paper mock-ups in the shape and size of different instruments. In the past, the project had come up with and announced a "yuru" percussion instrument that could be played while worn like a vest. But we purposely started development from scratch because we wanted to explore different ways in which people could enjoy playing music, and come up with an instrument that anyone could play regardless of physical size or other characteristics. As a result, we were able to come up with a design that is very obviously drum-like and highly versatile—that can be slung over your shoulders and held in your arms, or put on your lap or even on the floor, for children and those with wheelchairs.

Co-Creating with Various Diverse People,
From Lead Users to Musicians

It wasn't just lead users involved in the development—there were professional musicians as well.

MorisawaYes. Research began in the spring of 2023, and by summer we had a number of musicians involved as mentors, including Kavka Shishido, a musician that hosts hand sign-based rhythm events. At that point, however, we were still working with cardboard mockups, exposed parts. We were creating something new after all, so it was hard to know what the right thing was to do. We tried installing a speaker inside of a cardboard tube, putting a subwoofer in existing storage boxes to see how it would feel... At one point, I spent a whole day with ear plugs in, wearing a vibration device, to get a feel for how the music would feel. We were building something from scratch through trial and error, with all the struggle that entails.

Hug Drum mockups and prototypes offer a glimpse into the development process.
From right to left: Mockup made using a storage box and subwoofer; first prototype,
with exposed PVC pipes and LEDs; second prototype, which was presented at an internal hands-on exhibit.

AkitaOne of the reasons we asked professional musicians to participate in the project was to figure out how to make the instrument more challenging, in a fun way. In our conversations with lead users and Charisperson Tomohiro Sawada of the World Yuru Music Association, we had found that people would get bored very quickly of a musical instrument that was too easy to learn, meaning it would be important to design something that would be fun to learn and master. Ms. Shishido also presides over a percussion band, el tempo, that specializes in improvised performances using over 100 hand signs. This means she and the other team members have also been able to provide us with pointers as to how performers could communicate with one another.

MorisawaTypical products are designed and refined based on a clear set of functions and a clear design direction. But this time around, we had team members, both internal and external, working together to develop the design and functionality of the product. We would ask lead users and mentors their opinions as to the size, shape, and functionality of the product, and reflect these in updated versions. The whole process was quite swift, what you would call a rapid prototyping process.

Third prototype of the Hug Drum.

You said the team is currently on its third prototype. What kind of musical instrument has it shaped up to be?

AkitaIt's a drum that conveys sound through light and vibrations. To play it, you just hit the palm of your hand against the head of the drum. The area near the center produces a low sound, and the edges produce a high sound. Light is emitted when any sound is produced. There are two vibration speakers installed on the body of the drum—one meant to touch the side of the torso when the drum is held, and the other meant to touch the arm. The one on the torso side conveys the sound of your own drum, while the one on the arm side conveys the sound of the other performer's drum, in the form of vibrations. Conveying the sound of the drum through light and vibrations allows those with hearing impairments to play alongside other performers.

MorisawaWe updated a lot of elements even between the second to third prototype. With the second prototype, which was meant to be played in pairs, we attached LED strips to the side of the body to convey the sound of their partner's drum. But this made it so they were constantly looking near their hands. But what's important when playing music is being able to communicate through gestures and facial expressions. With the third prototype, we took this advice and made it so the light of the drum would be more visible to the performer's partner, so that they could each perform while watching the other. We also adjusted the straps, the locations of the vibration devices, and the different shapes on the drum so that it would suit various body types, from children to adults to those using wheelchairs.

What Lies Beyond Experience Design, and
Making the Joy of Music Accessible to All

With the project still underway, how do you feel about the results so far?

AkitaI was very happy when a lead user, who has a hearing impairments, told us they felt the vibrations were like music. If there were only a single strength of vibration, it would just come across like a rhythm. But in using two very different strengths of vibration, I think we were able to convey the sense that the vibrations were music.

MorisawaThe lead users have told us how much fun they are having, and Ms. Shishido has even told us, "This is exactly what an instrument should be!" We finally feel as if we're getting somewhere. The process of experience design was such an enormous task, and involved so much trial and error, but now that we're past that, I feel we've finally been able to shift our design focus to the product realm, to more detailed aspects of its form, usability, things like that.

Instrument mentors who participated in the development.
Improvisation Performance Group el tempo Kavka Shishido(2nd from the left), Show (far left), Daisuke Iwahara (far right);
General Incorporated Association Sign Language Entertainment Group oioi Nobuhiko Okazaki
(lead user with hearing impairment; 2nd from right);
Sony employee Kuniyo Oishi (lead user with hearing impairment, middle).

Instrument mentors who participated in the development.Improvisation Performance Group el tempo Kavka Shishido(2nd from the left), Show (far left), Daisuke Iwahara (far right); General Incorporated Association Sign Language Entertainment Group oioi Nobuhiko Okazaki (lead user with hearing impairment; 2nd from right); Sony employee Kuniyo Oishi (lead user with hearing impairment, middle).

AkitaWhen we personally conduct the tests, we put headphones on so we can’t hear anything. But the only way to find out how it really feels for someone who is hard of hearing is to have them experience it for themselves. And when they said to us, "Now we can enjoy music with everyone else," we were able to share in their joy. In that moment, I was really able to feel that we were making progress.

MorisawaA lot of people want to enjoy music with everyone else, but at the same time are scared that it would be too hard to keep pace with those around them. Our emphasis in reducing this obstacle was to create something that we ourselves could try and feel was fun and exciting. In other words, the key from the start was “fun,” and we would use technology and design to manifest this key element. Inclusive product development often devolves into just crossing things off a checklist: "Is there anything problematic with these specifications?" But this time, I think we were able to take a new, different kind of approach to development.

Comments from our Instrument
Development Mentors

Kavka Shishido

Musician, Instrument Development Mentor

I felt that this approach, of enjoying music not through the auditory senses, but through the visual and tactile senses, was a very interesting one. I’m already excited thinking about being able to share the fun and joy of music with even more people.

Nobuhiko Okazaki

Representative Director, General Incorporated Association Sign Language Entertainment Group oioi, Instrument Development Mentor with hearing impairment

It gives you confidence, being able to see and feel the rhythm of the other person’s drum beats through light and vibrations, and it’s a great feeling when you feel your rhythm match with that of the other performers. You can get really into it, like getting into a game.

Kuniyo Oishi

Sony Global Solutions Inc., Instrument Development Mentor with hearing impairment

After losing my hearing, I assumed I wouldn’t be able to enjoy music for the rest of my life. But playing the Hug Drum, I found myself thinking, "Wow, music really is fun!" It was a sense of excitement I hadn’t felt in a really long time.
And being able to share in the joy and excitement with everyone else made me so happy.

What is your outlook on the future of this project?

MorisawaThe point of this has been to design an experience anyone can enjoy. In that sense, we would feel a real sense of achievement if we're able to create moments where all different kinds of people—people who are hard of hearing, people who aren't very good at playing instruments—are able to get on a stage together and just enjoy themselves, smiles on their faces.

AkitaBeyond that, a major goal of ours has been something voiced by SME's Nozomu Kaji, who also serves as producer in the "Yuru" Musical Instruments project: that our KPI will be the number of smiles brought to people's faces. In other words, the focus will be on how to bring the experience of this new instrument to more and more people—this new instrument that naturally brings smiles to everyone's faces, from the performers to their friends and family, and even the audience. This will be hard to do, but we want to take it one step at a time, based on the results we've seen so far.

Demonstration of the second prototype of the Hug Drum.

February 21, 2024 / Conducted at Creative Center