Gesture controlled electronic music
So far we've heard how technology can influence the creative process, but what about the world of live music? How are artists integrating technology into their acts? One musician, Imogen Heap, has been collaborating with textile designers, engineers and computer scientists on a project called Mi.Mu gloves. Connie Orbach went to meet Adam Stark who is one of the team...
Adam - My name is Adam Stark and I am a software developer and I've been working on the Mi.Mu gloves now for about four years trying to turn all the rich data we get about your hand into music. At the moment, if you want to make electronic music you're normally presented with a midi keyboard, or some buttons, or nobs, or faders, but they're not very expressive ways of performing electronic music. The thing that's really, really expressive about people, more than anything, is their hands and so we wanted to make a device that catches the expressiveness of your hands and uses that as a controller for making electronic music.
Connie - I feel like the best way to explain this is if you let me have a go. Is that possible?
Adam - Sure, I'll talk you through it.
Connie - Okay. Fantastic, what do we need to do first?
Adam - So, the first thing we need to put the gloves on and then we need to calibrate them for your hands because everyone's hands are different.
Connie - The gloves are black, thin and feel very fragile, but actually they're incredibly sturdy and designed specifically to be strong, flexible and unobtrusive. They're wireless and even fingerless so you can play other instruments whilst you wear them but, most importantly, they're covered in electronics.
Adam - Through your fingers, there are either one or two bend sensors, depending on the finger and this detects the bend of your knuckles.
Connie - Okay.
Adam - So if you just feel the end of your fingers you'll feel something hard there.
Connie - It's like a kind of ribbon running down my fingers and that's a flex ven sensor.
Adam - Yes, that's a ven sensor. This part here, this little bud on the wrist detects the orientation of your hands - well it's actually of your wrist - so it detects the roll of your wrist, and if you move your wrist up and down or from left to right.
Connie - And that's all of the sensors on the glove?
Adam - So, in terms of the information going into the those are the two things; the bend of your fingers and orientation of your wrist, but we have a couple of pieces of feedback as well. So we have an LED here which will light up; we can programme that to tell you different things about the software so you really don't have to look at the screen. And on the wrist here we also have some vibration measures that buzz. We can also use those to tell you that certain things have happened or not happened.
Connie - After a bit more fiddling to get the gloves in place it was time to configure the software to my hand.
Adam - The first thing I'm going to do; I'm going to press calibrate and you're just going to move your hand open and closed and make sure you're moving all of your fingers including your thumb from fully bend to....
Connie - Okay, so clench them like a fist and then open them back out.
Adam - It's now finding all of the extreme points of your hand and where your hand moves to and what the greatest extent and minimum extent of it is.
Connie - Once the software knew the extent of the movement in my hand we could programme it to gestures. So Adam got me to make a few different movements, like a fist or a pointed finger, and the software remembered them so it could later match them to particular musical commands.
Adam - So what I've set up here is a way for you to play chords using the gloves. If you make a fist with your right hand that will play a certain chord and if you let go, it will stop.
Connie - Okay.
Adam - Now if you move it to a different direction, make a fist, it will play a different chord...
Connie - Ah, this is so exciting. So I'm moving my hand say in front of me, above my head, to the side and down.
Adam - There should be one over this side as well, just to the left.
Connie - To my left as opposed to my right.
Adam - So if you make this one again in front of you. Now move on your left hand. So the right hand here is now making a fist. So on the left hand if you roll your wrist while you make a sound. You control the tone of it there.
Connie - Wow! I have so much power in my hands right now. I had so much fun playing with gloves. I can't imagine what someone with actual musical abilities might be able to do.
Connie - Of course, I was far too distracted to manage an actual interview so sadly the time came when I had to take the gloves off and get back to work.
Adam - We allow you to combine together different movements. You might say, if I'm making a fist and I'm rolling my wrist from left to right, that particular movement I'm going to connect to a certain musical control perimeter. So, when I say that, what I mean is we connect it to some piece of music software, maybe it's the volume fade or maybe it's the panning around the room or it's the amount the reverb.
Connie - So there were originally, I guess, a tool for Imogen but you have many other people using these gloves as well. Is that right?
Adam - That's right. We realised there was something really, really powerful in these gloves and that every time we gave them to somebody different to put them on, they used them in a completely different way. We were really interested in how other people might use them and so we've now got about 20 different users around the world and they're using it for all kinds of different things. We've got film composers, we've got Ariana Grunday who's a sort of pop star, and we've got a charity called Drake Music who work with musicians with disabilities that are barriers to them making music. So they use technology to try and break down those barriers, and we're working with a musician called Chris Halpen and he's been making huge use of the gloves and gigging all over the place. He has cerebral palsy and he's had a journey through dealing with his condition and trying to find ways around his condition to make music, and I think the gloves for him have been somewhat of an emancipation.
Connie - There's a lot of performance involved in wearing these gloves. You really have to be willing to throw your hands around and play with it, so I guess there's only a certain type of performer that would be happy doing this as well?
Adam - I think that's a really good question. I'm a guitarist and I play in band where you normally tend to look at your guitar pedals and that kind of thing, and suddenly you're not looking at your guitar pedals, you're looking up at the audience and you're moving your hands around, and it's a very different experience. Sometimes I really love it and sometimes I feel a bit like a lemon. It does take a certain personality, but it does communicate to people better, I think, than almost anything else.
Connie - I'm not sure that I'd feel comfortable flailing my arms around on stage but maybe that's why I'm not a performer. That, and the whole musical ability thing but, with these gloves, there seems little doubt that technology and creativity are hand in hand.