While he’s taking some time to hone his business skills, Steven Dourmashkin will remain forever an engineer.
The aerospace engineering PhD student is taking a leave of absence from his studies to further develop musical rings he began working on as an undergraduate at Cornell. Called Specdrums, the rings allow the wearer to drum on any surface, with the color of the surface determining the sound emitted by a phone app. His idea was recently validated on Kickstarter, where he exceeded his fundraising goal by more than $170,000.
But going from idea to working device was not easy.
Dourmashkin began with the development of the hardware within the rings. He needed to design a way for the ring to sense when it was tapped on a surface, which color was tapped, and how to communicate this information to an app through Bluetooth. This required building a circuit board with all the necessary components working in harmony.
“You have the breadboard—a circuit board meant for prototyping—and then you begin to try out the parts to see what works,” Dourmashkin said. “Getting from all the separate components to one combined circuit was one of the most challenging pieces of this project.”
Putting the boards together, implementing each resistor and sensor with tweezers and special glue, required a very steady hand. Even with a careful plan and vigilant execution, there were disappointments.
“There were times I would spend all night putting a circuit board together and then it wouldn’t work,” Dourmashkin said. “Then I’d try to fix it and end up breaking it even more.”
But he slowly began to make progress, working with black and white sensors to establish how signals could be sent via Bluetooth to an app and assigned to a specific sound. As he established proficiency with these signals, he moved to color sensors, implementing them into his trial circuit boards.
“When the custom board finally turned on and detected colors as planned, that was pretty cool,” said Dourmashkin. “Then it broke again pretty quickly.”
Through the process, Dourmashkin patented a color-detection algorithm to sense different shades of colors, partially tapped colors and other aspects of the color sensing to make the device more reliable.
Eventually, he had hardware that sent clear signals, leaving him to design and build an app that would take these signals and turn them into music. He pulled sound files of drums and cymbals from online databases and inserted them into the app so users could choose the sound for each available color. Then he built silicone holders in CU Boulder’s Idea Forge.
In summer 2017, Dourmashkin was invited to participate in CU Boulder’s summer business accelerator, Catalyze CU, which helped him prepare for his overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign. As he released prototypes to customers and prepared for his first massive shipment in January, Dourmashkin said he had mixed emotions.
“It’s like raising a baby,” he said. “I’ve been working on this for so long, and now I’m letting it go into the world to let people use it in their own ways.”
Dourmashkin has already watched Specdrums used in ways he never imagined. In one instance, a guitar player acted as his own accompanist with the ring placed on his toe. In another, Dourmashkin saw the benefits that Specdrums could have for autistic children, providing controlled and soothing sensory input.
These applications were hints of what he hopes Specdrums will become. He is already working on a pro version for musicians and performers, which requires making the Bluetooth signal more reliable in venues where other cell phones could cause interference.
“I hope it becomes a tool for people to have fun with music,” Dourmashkin said. “I want to make music more portable and accessible.”
While he may never return to grinding away on the design with his initial fervor, Dourmashkin plans to keep engineering as a part of his role at the developing company.
“I think the engineering aspect is more interesting,” he said, “but I have to make sure everything with the company is running smoothly. I want to be involved with all the business decisions. But at some point I’d like to get back to doing more engineering.”