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Musician, designing digital musical instruments for people with physical disabilities, using DIY sensors-Arduino-MaxMSP

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

multi-touch rant

Ok, I might not be able to express this ably.....but here goes.

First of all I have to say I am not a Luddite: I work on the periphery of Interaction Design, hacking hardware and doing some basic programming, and I've done (and continue to do) my research. In the field of Digital Musical Instruments (DMIs), our love affair with THE TECHNOLOGY has passed the honeymoon period; we are now evaluating the tactile, haptic and expressive affordances of THE APPLICATION of those formerly novel technologies. However, with the advent of remote gesture-sensing and multitouch technologies, I believe we are in danger of going back to square one - marvelling at the technology and overlooking its application. Perhaps this is less of a concern in the field of consumer-targeted Interaction Design (eg, tablets and gaming), where consumers are like puppies in a room full of butterflies, and will buy anything brightly-coloured. My worry is that this technology is increasing being applied in the area of DMI design, being vaunted as more immersive and expressive (read: 'more brightly coloured'). Novel interaction environments can enhance and encourage new modalities of expression and therefore new art forms. But please, don't called these interfaces "instruments" - if you can't touch it, you can't feel it and more importantly, it can't feel you.


  1. spectro via Cycling74 said:

    I am less concerned with this stuff than I once was, but I still think about it now and then, so...

    There's no doubt there is a "bandwagon" effect - these days amplified and accellerated by "social media" where throngs go apeshit over the newest (and latest) toys and often lose interest almost as quickly. The Kinect and the numerous projects it has spawned is a perfect example, and lets not even talk about multitouch interfaces.

    Whether or not these can be viable front ends for instruments though is a more interesting question that poses the question of "what is an instrument". There is a distinct disadvantage for the non-tactile approach where strict repeatability is a pre-requisite for the classification of instrument - ie in the tactile world of physical musical instruments, but does this exclude such an approach form being defined as a instrument on that basis alone, or is it the lack of expressive result or "lack of complexity" (that requires long periods of practise in instrument mastery) that may be the real issue. Or...

    Novelty aside, (and by my reckoning, that excludes quite a lot of contenders) If these innovations, well used and thoughtfully implemented, do provide the means for new(er) ways to organize sounds or other media, or even new forms of expression, then what should they be called?

    Just some thoughts...

  2. Hi spectro

    thanks for joining (starting!) the dialogue.

    One point I neglected to mention is that the more robust and sophisticated examples of truly engaging DMIs (IMO) use fairly 'standard' sensor technologies, such as FSRs, flex sensors and accelerometers,



    for example.

    Such sensors are tactile and therefore lend themselves to application in a creative interaction environment.

    I completely agree with your statement regarding learnability and repeatability: keys, handles, buttons etc allow a degree of 'moderation' of fine motor control gestures, which can be learned and accurately repeated.

    If you don't mind, I'd like to post your comments above, onto my blog so that others may benefit from/disagree with.

    Thanks again

  3. Terry McDermott said:

    Let me venture to say that no one would disagree that the theremin is a legitimate musical instrument-- it is distinct from (non-tactile) video sensing in that its response is immediate, so while tactility is important, so is 'concreteness' and immediacy of response (also the simple mapping of proximity to pitch & volume would help).

    It is an extremely difficult instrument to master-- but so is the violin, one of the most haptically-oriented instruments ever invented....

    all things being equal, aside from a tactile interface being attractive and approachable, perhaps it's the immediacy of response inherent in tactile interfaces that provides the handles and buttons, just as much as the haptic experience, and that immediacy of response is illustrated in what drives the expressivity of the theremin

    hope that makes sense

  4. very glad to have your contribution to this timely debate. You raise a number of valid points:

    the theremin is often cited as a paradigm of early non-conventional instrument design, for the very reasons you mention - immediacy, learnability and relatively transparent mapping. I would suggest that there isn't a more substantial body of work for the instrument because it eschews tactility; Léon's design intentions are clear though. And also relevant is your reference to the violin - an instrument that also caused much debate and controversy when it first appeared.

    I am tempted to call devices such as the Lemur, iPad, Monome, reacTable, Kinect etc 'controllers', and the two examples I linked to (amongst others) 'instruments'.