By Liz Stinson, Wired
With most concerts, what you see is what you hear: A guitarist cozying up to a speaker for feedback, a drummer tapping the high-hat, a singer breathing into the mic. There’s a visual, interactive element to the show that plays a huge role in how much fun it is for the audience.
Not all musicians have that luxury. Go to an electronic music concert and most of the time you’ll find the artist hunched over a computer, turning knobs and poking buttons. You hear sounds, but rarely do you know how they’re made or where they’re coming from. At best, this effect is mysterious; at worst, it’s boring. “When you see a musician on a laptop, they’re often doing amazing things, you just have no idea because it’s on a screen,” says Imogen Heap. “Usually it just looks like they’re sending an email.”
Heap, a singer-songwriter and frontwoman of Frou Frou, has been making music with computers for more than a decade. Her music is complex and engaging, but it’s also difficult to translate into a live performance. It requires a stage-full of equipment: samplers, loopers, computers, acoustic and electronic instruments, all of which Heap has to play individually.
“I always felt it kind of stopped the flow of what I was doing live on stage to go do this action, which is usually kind of robotic,” she says about pressing buttons and moving a computer mouse. “There are amazing sounds and effects you can do inside a computer, but there was never really a way to express that. I wanted to find a way to physicalize those pieces of software and express that into the space around me.”
Heap recently launched a Kickstarter for Mi.Mu Gloves, a project she’s been working on for the past four years to free musicians like herself from the traditional constraints of playing electronic music live. The gloves are essentially mini-computers that wirelessly control music through programmable gestures.
Each glove is equipped with a series of sensors that track the user’s hand position, movement and velocity. Bend sensors are located in the wrist and fingers so the glove can communicate the smallest of gestures. Each movement is mapped in software that allows the user to program specific commands depending on what they want to do.
So for instance, instead of turning the volume up on a computer, you could program the gloves so you simply have to lift your hand. Or if you wanted to add a filter to a sound, all you’d have to do is swipe your hand to the left. ”If I wanted to sample my voice, in the past I would have to push a button on a device that was sitting on a table somewhere,” says Heap. “With the glove I can do a grasp action by my mouth and it’s like pressing record.”
Watching Heap use the gloves is a little like watching a fairy wave a magic wand. Sounds appear and contort as quickly as she can move her hand. In this context, sound almost becomes a physical object that can be pushed, twisted and bounced to different effect.
From an audience point of view, it’s a new way to watch music being made, but Heap says it actually feels quite natural. “It feels very instinctive, like how you should be making music” she says. “And if they’re working correctly, the technology disappears completely— you almost forget you’re watching someone create music.”
Sounds cool, right? And it is. But the gloves are expensive. A single glove is selling for £1,200, or nearly $2,000 right now on Kickstarter. But Heap is quick to point out that this is not just a glove; it’s essentially a piece of state-of-the-art musical equipment, and that doesn’t come cheap. For this limited run, each Mi.Mu Glove will be made by hand, though Heap hopes to knock the prices down significantly once they begin mass manufacturing them.
Though Heap originally developed the gloves for musicians, this new form of tactile interaction has other obvious applications. Most of the people she’s heard from have talked about using them in the medical field or hacking them to give voice to sign language.
Ultimately, says Heap, the gloves are a way to humanize technology. It’s possible, she says, that eventually the lines between technology and humans will be so blurred we won’t be able to notice if we’re interacting with our bodies or an outside system. “It might get to the point where we won’t even need gloves,” she says. “But for now, this is what we have, and it’s amazing.”
You can donate to the Mi.Mu Gloves Kickstarter here.
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