Turn Up the Volume My Foot’s Asleep: Sonic Stimulation
It sits there like an old Hoover vacuum cleaner. Only it doesn’t inhale dust, it exhales vibrations. And the hose isn’t coming out of a squat globe, but out of the top of a cube about 14 inches on a side, painted fire-engine red. How Wachspress talks about it as if it were a monolith from 2001.
How—that’s his whole first name—has luxuriant black hair, immense muttonchop sideburns and a gentle, inward expression as if he’s keeping quiet about a surprise party. His monolith is the “Auditac Sonic Stimulator”: It’s a sort of limited-access loudspeaker for every part of the body except the ears. “The Beatles on your back. Bartok on your belly,” croons an Auditac leaflet; “Beethoven between your legs.” It’s the first in a series of “tactile communication devices” How thinks are going to revolutionize our society as much as television has.
At the moment the papa of the revolutionary device is sitting tight. Not one Sonic Stimulator has been sold, for fear of interference on his patent applications. But on the morning after Richard Nixon’s resignation, he kindly consented to give Rolling Stone‘s unbiased test panel a demonstration of the device, plus unlimited glasses of apple juice.
The Sonic Stimulator idea is simple. The ear is a specialized organ for transmitting sound signals to the brain, but since sound is merely physical vibration, any pressure-sensitive organ can “hear.” The palm of the hand, for instance (very good, says How; good hi-fi reception because of its abundance of nerve endings). Or the groin (also good for the same reason and because of the various internal organs nearby, each with its own complement of sensors). The elbows and knees are good listeners too, because they readily transfer sound vibrations to the skeleton, thus sending messages from all over the body.
The experience is a little like being at a live concert on about 12 square inches of your body. The music is faintly audible to the ears, but the air in the probe is pummeling your flesh like a concert hall speaker. How can envision a setup that would cover the entire body with sound vibrations, but would make so little audible noise that the landlady would never know the Fillmore was going on upstairs.
And a better system would involve having the hose filled with liquid instead of air. “Oh yeah,” says How. “I’ve played with it in the bathtub.”
It’s a long and winding road that has led this 29-year-old from being an aeronautics major at Brooklyn Tech to an audio inventor in a tiny and incredibly compact San Francisco apartment stuffed with electronics paraphernalia—even in the kitchen. Fortunately, How Wachspress is equipped to understand it; he’s into Alan Watts, dynamical analogies, basic psycho-physical processes, the concept of unity—understanding things on the level where the essential difference disappears between, say, sound and electricity. As he recounts his life story, he regularly pauses to sum it up in terms of larger processes. Such as, “So my interest in audio went through these stages: reproduction, recording, synthesis, multimedia.”
While explaining things, he doodles arrows on a notepad. “I am a person,” he says, “who has survived all sorts of disasters and setbacks because I’ve known what I wanted to do.”
One of his early setbacks was dropping out of Cooper Union at the age of 19. He went to work at a plastics factory, which gave him an idea of what was involved in manufacturing. As a consequence, he says, he has a horror of becoming a manufacturer. When it comes time to manufacture the Sonic Stimulator he envisions non-exclusive licensing of everybody who wants to manufacture it, rather than setting up his own factory. (How promises this soon. The crucial claims of his Teletac patent application have been allowed—and he expects to set up some sort of public showcase within a year.)
During a trip to London in 1966 he was inspired to revive his childhood dream of being an inventor when he saw a museum exhibit of the prototypes of famous inventions. Back in New York, he scurried around in audio technology, something he’d returned to after Cooper Union; as a child he had messed around with early model tape-recorders and the like, because his father was an audio engineer. How worked as a news recorder for WBAI FM in New York and did odd jobs around recording studios, not counting a little research and development for a business machine company.
Then he fell into a situation that changed his life. It was 1969 on the Lower East Side and, as he says, “Hair was in the streets, not on the stage.” One of the unique institutions cast up by the wild ferment of those days was a sort of psychedelic playground called Cerebrum. Fifty-six customers at a time would spend a couple of hours wearing translucent white robes, being fed strawberries soaked in wine and playing with touchy-feely toys like giant balloons, lying under collapsed tents of parachute material and stroking each other with hand lotion. The addition of a low-keyed lightshow and music made it what it was dubbed, a sensorium. How was brought in to fix the sound system; he was also a Cerebrum “guide.”
Cerebrum eventually folded, a victim of cashflow problems and, in How’s opinion, an inability to interest customers in returning. “Somebody called those the Go-Go Years,” he recalls. “It was a wild time, people were trying anything. I got into all the senses. I was inventing atomizers—I still have a scent library. And it was at that time that I got the original acid flash of multimedia. The idea of two-way tactile communication over a distance. Carrying it to its most outrageous extension, a fuck-by-phone machine.”
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