James Madison University

Faculty Members Win Award for Innovative Invention

By: Dina Manco
Posted: December 9, 2014

Auditory researcher and Department of Psychology professor, Dr. Michael Hall is no stranger to innovative ideas. Earlier in 2014, he won an award from JMU Technology Innovation’s Intellectual Property (IP) Disclosure Incentive Program for his invention of a software synthesizer to aid researchers and musicians. The IP Disclosure Incentive Program exists to promote creative ideas in the JMU community. Now, Hall is being recognized once again – this time with the assistance of College of Education’s adjunct faculty member Thomas Wilcox. Their innovation of 'Band-Pass Filter Designs for Acoustic Musical Instruments’ is one of the top five innovations in the IP Disclosure Incentive Program for 2013-14. Wilcox explains the invention is “an audio filter device to mechanically alter and improve the sound of acoustic musical instruments.” As Hall says, the inspiration for the design comes from a lack of accessibility to tweak the quality of sound in acoustic instruments. In electronic instruments one can easily change sound quality, but acoustic instruments do not share that luxury; this project seeks to reduce or eliminate this limitation.

Hall pitched the idea of filter designs for acoustic instruments – still in its beginning stages -- to Wilcox at the award ceremony for his previous invention. Wilcox states, “[I work] with faculty to help them realize their ideas and inventions, and to help guide these to market as commercial products. My position is funded by a grant from 4-VA, advocates for innovative and creative faculty.” Hall comments, “The idea for the innovation has been there for years, but the means to make it a reality was not existent until [Wilcox]. I said to him, ‘Am I off my rocker or is this a real [possibility]?’”

The duo has designs for different filters to alter sounds in acoustic instruments. The process is similar to how human speech produces varying sounds for different vowels. Wilcox says the invention is relatable to “how we make an ‘ah’ and ‘ee’ sound; right away we visualize the throat and tongue changing to make them.” Physical prototypes have yet to be realized, but initial working models are being made. Hall explains, the filters are based on well-researched and long-standing principles of human speech production; therefore, the physical manifestation should be put together without issue. Once the physical filters are completed, Hall and Wilcox plan on embedding them into instruments. The $2,000 award from JMU Technology Innovation will be used to fund these efforts.

Hall and Wilcox are awaiting patent approval before they involve students and other collaborators in furthering their innovation. Hall says, “My ultimate goal is having something used by other people.” The simplicity and uniqueness of the designs are some of the invention’s major selling points. Transparent material will initially be used to implement the filters, which will allow onlookers to see what is actually going on inside the device while it is being played. The invention is not exclusive to one audience, but the filter designs will be especially useful to musicians or educators who work in the School of Music or the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Wilcox and Hall look forward to continuing the collaborative process to bring their filter ideas to life. They also are honored their innovation made the top five of the IP Incentive Disclosure Program. Wilcox says, “In collaborations you work on things you never thought in a million years you would do, end up engaging in [activities that are] far more fun, and coming up with something truly interesting for the world.”