May 30, 2018

Class of 2018: PhD grad creates Womba, a musical instrument for the unborn child

Aura Pon hopes to make her co-invention available commercially
Aura Pon will graduate from the University of Calgary with her PhD in music at the June 6 convocation ceremonies.

Aura Pon will graduate with her PhD in music at the June 6 convocation ceremonies.

Matthias Graf

When she was pregnant with her first child in 2013, Aura Pon heard the same advice so many expectant mothers hear about the benefits of playing music for their babies in the womb. It’s almost common wisdom today, the idea that this practice stimulates the in-utero baby, enriching its development and establishing an early bond between mother and child.

Being a musician herself — a freelance oboist for the likes of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Calgary Opera and Theatre Calgary, an accomplished composer and a music technology researcher with a passion for invention — Pon was, perhaps, bound to take this to the next level.

“I’m all about creativity and, as opposed to just being a passive consumer of music, I believe everybody can create it — not just musicians,” says Pon, who will be graduating with her PhD in music at the June 6 convocation ceremonies on the University of Calgary campus. “I wanted my child to have the experience of creating sound. What better way to foster his auditory development, his sense of cause and effect, and, maybe, a love of music?”

'Womba is world's first prenatal musical instrument'

This led the music researcher — a student in the Computational Media Design program — to co-invent the Womba, an innovation which seems well on its way to becoming commercially available.

Pon believes that the Womba — co-created with Johnty Wang, who has since begun a PhD in music technology at McGill University, and supported by her supervisors Sheelagh Carpendale (Department of Computer Science) and Laurie Radford (school of Creative and Performing Arts) — is “the world’s first prenatal musical instrument.”  

A lightweight electronic instrument that can be strapped across a pregnant woman’s belly in the fashion of a belt, the Womba is triggered to make music by a child’s in-utero movements. The instrument is augmented with lights which form patterns, also in response to a baby’s movements.

“The first version of the Womba was, essentially, just sensors taped to my belly which were set up to trigger sounds on a church organ. The location of certain kicks would set off certain chords,” explains Pon. “As far as being a bonding tool, I’ll tell you that it was pretty amazing to be able to hear my baby making these sounds. It was magical.”

Since then the Womba has evolved considerably. The current model uses custom sensor technology to trigger a selection of sampled and synthesized instrument sounds.

“We wanted to be able to set it to the preferences of the parent, as, in a very real sense, this can be your child’s first voice. So, a parent might care: ‘Did my child play drums or a synthesizer or, maybe, sing?’ We didn’t want it to be a matter of: ‘The Womba sounds like this.’ We wanted to give the parent some options.”

The Womba is triggered to make music by a child’s in-utero movements.

The Womba is triggered to make music by a child’s in-utero movements.

Cynthia Radford

Babies benefit from sound in utero

The listening experience is not only for the parents, Pon notes. Rather, the speakers are pointed inward so that the in-utero baby can hear its music as well. “Our hope is that the babies might form certain associations: ‘If I kick here, a certain sound is made,’” says Pon. “Because when they’re born, we know infants start to make these simple connections associating body movements with sound.”

Pon and Wang have been working with the University of Calgary’s Innovate Calgary — an initiative dedicated to promoting business opportunities for UCalgary research — to develop commercial interest in the Womba. They recently filed for a U.S. patent and there is a company (which they can’t divulge at this time) that is interested in making the product commercially available.

“One of our long-term visions is that the Womba be a product that could be purchased for both the duration of your pregnancy and then, after the baby is born, it could be adapted as a musical instrument that an infant could continue to play with outside movements,” says Pon.

She also sees the instrument being sold to maternity wards, prenatal clinics or even research centres. Pon and Wang feel the Womba could potentially open the door for new fetal research opportunities.

When she looks back on the creation of the Womba, Pon gives her children much credit for its genesis.

“I had two children during the course of completing my PhD and, as you can imagine, that was very difficult at times,” she says. “Integrating parenthood and academia can be very challenging. But becoming a mother also helped inspire the creation of the Womba. Forging this unique bond with my children was very special and it was a huge motivating factor.”