Music and The Mind at McMaster LIVELab – Interview with Dave Thompson


Dave Thompson works as a technician in the LIVELab at the McMaster Institute for Music and The Mind (MIMM) in Hamilton, Canada. He studied Mathematical Science at McMaster University and is interested in computers and programming. First, he started working at another EEG lab as a programmer, which led to more work with EEG, signal processing and programming experiments. When he started to specialize in evoked responses from the brain for different sounds, he started working at the LIVELab. The LIVELab consists of a big theater with 106 seats and a dance studio. It is dedicated to developing a center for the scientific study of music, sound and movement and their importance in human health. We had the chance to talk with Dave about his work.

Dave, could you explain what your research in the LIVElab at McMaster University is about?

Dave Thompson: “The McMaster Institute is engaged in neuroscientific research that aims to understand the positive role of music training, movement and performance. The LIVELab is a unique facility to learn how performers interact, how audiences move during a performance and the social and emotional impact of these experiences. Research also includes hearing aid technologies, coordination disorders of Autism and Parkinson’s and their benefit from movement and music. The LIVELab is a multi-use space for different professors in different fields. What is very special here is the amount of EEG data we can collect at once. Traditionally, if you run an EEG study with 32 participants, it would take at least a month. But here, we can do it in 1 hour. The theater also allows us to study music in a live setting. Traditionally, in music research, you have one person and place him in a room and play some music. But this is a very different experience. When you go to a live show, experiments are usually not possible. But here in the LIVELab, we developed a setting that makes research during live shows possible.”

For musical performances, you measure the audience’s brain activity and heart rate with 18 g.USBamps, 4 g.HIamps with 64 channels and a lot of g.GAMMAsys caps at the same time. Additionally, you give tablets to the audience, right? Could you explain why you need tablets?

Dave Thompson: “The tablet system is a special way for the audience to receive online feedback, so they can answer questions via multiple choice in real time. We can have the audience rate the performances via sliders on the tablet. And usually this is all synchronized with a video, EEG, ECG and sound as well. A lot of my day to day job is making all these systems talk and have everything synced together.”

You also work with motion tracking systems. Why is motion caption important, and how do you combine all these different technologies in terms of analysis?

Dave Thompson: “In the LIVELab, we use a motion capture system, which is a 29-camera system designed to be as reconfigurable as possible. It’s known that dance or modified versions of dance can help people with Parkinson’s to regain some movement ability. But people with Parkinson’s are mostly stuck in their house. It is very expensive for them to have a dancer to come every day to teach different dance moves. With motion capture system, LIVELab captures the movements of a dancer, which will be transformed to a game of the Xbox that uses the Kinect system. With Kinect, you can look where the person with Parkinson’s is moving and can adapt the avatar on the screen.”

Dave Thompson: “The g.tec systems are great for timing because they have the external input triggers. We can build custom hardware, for example to take an audio signal in and convert it to a TTL pulse. I can send it out as a trigger code to all amplifiers at once. They all receive the same trigger at the same time. And when we use the sound system, let’s say we play music to somebody, we can have a stereo channel and then a third channel. Then we use the g.tec system to actively synchronize them to the audio by a third channel. Therefore, g.tec developed an OSC (Open Sound Control) component in the Simulink circuit. OSC provides a very fast way to communicate. This is an extra feature we appreciate because it has been especially developed by g.tec for our work in the LIVELab.”

How important are wireless technologies, such as wireless EEG systems, for your work?

Dave Thompson: “Many people are interested in a setup with 7 EEG channels and one for heart rate. Normally, we don’t measure EEG in combination with motion capture because with motion capture we want the natural movements of people and our current EEG systems are with wires. We got to know the g.Nautilus wireless EEG system and we are very fascinated with them. We would like to have a g.Nautilus to measure movements and EEG at the same time because it opens up many new experiments.”

Do your scientific findings also enrich other fields?

Dave Thompson: “We had also a big study with hearing aids. There has been a lot of work to find the algorithms in a hearing aid to make it better for the person wearing them. Our ear can introduce sound from all around, and we are able to reduce background noises.”

What other ideas and ongoing projects has the McMaster’s LIVELab?

Dave Thompson: “We are working on new projects that involve dance and music compensation and audience EEG interactions. You can wire the audience with EEG and look for different signals within the brain or capture the movement of the audience via motion capture shown on a screen and alter the way the musicians played. We also have a very complicated sound system with 109 independent channels. We can do some pretty amazing surround sound applications. We used motion capture on an object that has been passed around among the audience. And with the height and position, we could control what kind of filters the sound went through. We had an opera singer, and as the object has passed around the room, the audience could change the acoustics of the room and the effects of the singer’s voice. So, they are directly changing what they hear. But the opera singer was just a performance for fun, because it is important to establish relationships with artists and have the community interested in our projects. “

Dave Thompson: “Recently we had a jazz concert here at LIVELab where we used motion capture of the audience. We wanted to synchronize the head movements. We wired up just a few audience members and the jazz duo changed their playing based on how the audience was moving. The jazz duo saw the motion capture data raw on the screen.”

What do you envision are the most promising future directions with your research?

Dave Thompson: “The LIVELab is a multidisciplinary space with a lot of different areas for research. Social psychology or medical science, it’s all very interesting. I hope new ideas will come out of the LIVELab.”

Thanks for your time, Dave.


McMaster LIVELab