Heartbeat Amplifier at Burning Man

The Heartbeat Amplifier is a collaborative artistic effort between Alan Macy, Hitch McDermid and Mark Goerner with the support of dozens of volunteers. Since we began this project in June 2009, we have collaboratively dedicated thousands of hours and substantial resources to bring the Heartbeat Amplifier experience to thousands of people, exhibiting at venues including Burning Man 2009, Lightning in a Bottle, the Supperclub in San Francisco, Wanderlust at Squaw Valley, the San Francisco Exploratorium, Symbiosis Gathering and the California Academy of the Sciences. Below is our story and user testimonials from the Heartbeat Amplifier Diary.

In June 2009, on a cold night in Michigan, Hitch had a vision to amplify the sound of the human heart through bass heavy speakers. Soon thereafter, Dr. Mike North, a mutual friend introduced Hitch to Alan Macy, a biomedical scientist and artist with a similar dream. Alan suggested the use of the electrocardiogram (ECG) signal as the source for Hitch’s Burning Man art project. Within a few weeks, Alan developed an ECG amplifier and light driver. Soon thereafter, Hitch and Alan undertook some experiments in Fishbon’s Pescadrome studio in Santa Barbara.

Naturally, as prototype development progressed, with Randolf Crowson’s and Jeffrey Boynton’s attendance too, the ideas started coming. What began as a wish to simply amplify the heartbeat, soon morphed into the understanding that amplified sound did not have to be the stopping point. Other sensory aspects could be included and so the sensations of touch, light and heat were incorporated. With great excitement, Alan, Hitch, Jeffrey and Randolf began amplifying their own heartbeats in real-time, shaking the rafters with sound, reverberating their bodies with subsonic haptics and lighting up the room with the pulse of their hearts.

With Alan’s technical expertise and Hitch’s team-building leadership, they became art project collaborators. Hitch put together a team of 35 volunteers to build the art and infrastructure of what became the Heartbeat Amplifier at Burning Man, 2009. Mark Goerner joined the project as the lead festival structure designer for Lightning in a Bottle 2011.

The Heartbeat Amplifier (HBA) is based on modern electrocardiograph design methods, but incorporates new twists to create a specific type of art form. The idea is that the resulting “sensory art” is completely driven by the participating individual’s physiology. The HBA simply measures and then amplifies the participant’s electrocardiogram in real-time. The ECG is a very tiny biopotential that appears as a differential voltage signal of about 1mV between various locations on the body skin surface.

To create a functional and aesthetic design, the latest HBA electronics, sense the presence of a participant in the HBA’s papasan chair. Once the participant is comfortable and relaxed, the ECG signal is gently and increasing amplified, and then further processed with emphasized harmonic content, to drive amplified speakers operating in the frequency range of 20-200Hz. In addition, the same audio signal drives a network of subsonic (haptic) transducers located within the HBA chair. Finally, a specialized flood-light array is proportionally modulated in accordance to the registered magnitude of the participant’s ECG.

The subjective experience of sitting in the HBA chair is quite remarkable. Even with no information provided, people will typically discern that their own heartbeat is driving the world of sensation surrounding them. They hear the unmistakable sound of their heart, coupled with the physical push and pull of the chair’s haptic transducers mimicking the opening and closing of their heart’s chambers while they simultaneously see a multicolored array of light and then feel the pulse of heat from the flood lamps on their face and body.

After just a short amount of time in the chair, people experience how taking a breath influences their heart rate and also the amplitude of their ECG. People discover that there are several methods to voluntarily influence the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and thus influence their own heart’s activity.

As a spectator, one sees multiple participants sitting in comfortable chairs, seeming very relaxed. However, there is an orchestra of sound and light happening all around the participants. The environment changes as people come and go from the chairs. Multiple participants are creating a constantly mutating art experience in real-time.

The experience for participants and spectators is beautiful, mysterious and surreal.

Heartbeat Amplifier Contributors

Corinna Maharani: Extraordinary seamstress and creator of Heartbeat Amplifier fabric covers

Mike North: Without whose magical abilities this project would never have happened

Aaron Cutchin: Capable and steadfast, always provides critical support in a pinch

Steve Silverman: The big rabbit, whose photographic skill has captured essential moments

Testimonials

These are entries from the “Heartbeat Diary”, where people write about their experiences having their hearts amplified at the Heartbeat Amplifier.

“It was like my heartbeat was being absorbed and played back at my resonant frequency, and massaging my mind and body at the same time…sweet!”~Alex

“So heavenly! I started complex meditations to relax, but then I realized it was enough just to imagine I was petting my cat. Thank you <3” ~Unknown

“I felt like I was inside my own big heart. Thanks.” ~L.A. Sugai

“On our journey, here are beautiful people who shine their light, illuminating us and helping us see the parts of ourselves we don’t see. And that those parts can be awesome! What a gift…” ~Anonymous

“An experience I will never forget” ~Zyggy

“It was interesting how it made my irregular heartbeat easier for me to notice!” ~Anonymous

“It was like my heartbeat was being absorbed and played back at my resonant frequency, and massaging my mind and body at the same time…sweet!” ~Alex

“Wow! The vibration of adrenaline rushing through my heart was so so epic words cannot explain” ~Mango

“Sitting with my sweetheart in the down thumping chair what could be better? Sucking on a pear?” ~Anonymous

“Very cool – a new dimension of me…” ~Falcon

“Our hearts beat to the same beat but never the same…” ~Anonymous

“Awesome! Always try to be very connected to my heart in my life. This was great to see it, feel it, heal it, through an outside source, not my own body. Rad!” ~ Ryan

“I CAN make my heart beat faster. Who’d have thought it?!!” ~Anonymous

“Wow! Amazing! It was like being in my mama’s belly!” ~<3 Lyne

“I really am alive!!” ~Anonymous

“My whole body buzzed after. Thanks so much for all your work!” ~Mayoika

“I can send the fullness of my whole hearted being out into the world and the universe pulsates my own rhythm back in response…” ~Anonymous

“My heartbeat amplified sounds alive, a real big sound, a pulsing beating rhythm of Love. We all have heartbeats, love breathes sensation, motivation, bless, and joy. My heart beats brightly in celebration.” ~Anonymous

“Beautiful to say hello to my heart. My insides. Such a gift!” ~ Bamy G.

“To dive in deep in a way never done before. Thank you.” ~Anonymous

“I felt waves of the world’s energy flowing in and out as I breathed and the bass synchronized the rhythm with me.” ~D.J. From San Diego, CA

“I love my heart. All hearts. Thank you for beating every rhythm of my days. Forever yours…” ~M

“Thank you for such a beautiful and powerful exhibit. My heart is saying so much and you have reminded me to listen!! Thank you for your gift. <3” ~Anonymous

“Thank you for creating something so unique…it was amazing to have something so quietly internal suddenly burst forth. I loved it! :)” ~Debra

“So fascinating to hear and feel the changes…fast & slow…biology & art — yay!!” ~Anonymous


Exhibitions

  • 2014: Burning Man
    Black Rock City, NV

Video