Prosthetic instruments create music through body movements

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by Olivia Solon

A team of researchers from the Input Devices and Music Interaction Lab (IDMIL) at McGill University has developed “prosthetic digital instruments” which look like spines and ribcages and can be worn on the body to create music.

The instruments have been developed over three years by designers — PhD researchers Joseph Malloch and Ian Hattwick, under the supervision of IDMIL director Marcelo Wanderley — working closely with dancers, musicians, composers and a choreographer. They were designed to advance sensing technologies while being sturdy enough to be used during performances.

The resulting computer music control interfaces can function both as hand-held controllers and wearable, movement-tracking extensions of the body. The team made around 30 working instruments in total, each with embedded sensors, power supplies and wireless data transceivers to allow performers to control the music in realtime through touch, movement and location. Signals from each instrument are sent to an open-source peer-to-peer software system that transforms the gestures into sound.

The objects have been designed to be beautiful, functional and believable as both instruments and as an extension of the performer’s body. For example, there is a spine-like instrument that can be worn on the back but also removed and manipulated with the hands. It doesn’t have any screws or nails, instead, everything slots together using interference fits. “We thought that might make it more believable, something that’s closer to a material than a collection of parts,” explains Malloch in a documentary about the project.

The spine was made from a series of plastic “vertebrae” threaded onto three long flexible plastic tubes, to create a stable yet flexible structure. Attached to the spine were accelerometers, gyroscopes and a magnetic sensor that worked together to detect the orientation of the object and the shape into which it is being manipulated.

Meanwhile, the ribs and the visors were made from clear, curved acrylic with embedded LEDs. Both had an inertial movement unit and a transparent, touch-sensitive surface along the length of the plastic. This was connected to the electronics at the base of the devices using magnet wire fed through tiny grooves running along the length of the rib or visor.

The team drew heavily on digital fabrication techniques such as 3D printing and laser cutting to make the transhumanist instruments. “We wanted to blur the idea of when is the instrument an object and when is it part of the body,” added Malloch.

The instruments were then put to work in a real performance, called Les Gestes, where two dancers wore the devices and controlled the musical output. Depending on the specific instrument being used, dancers would have to adapt their movement accordingly. Hattwick explains: “We are creating these instruments that are all about the performing gesture. The dancers aren’t moving freely; they are having to do certain gestures to accommodate the instrument.”

Les Gestes was performed earlier in the year in Canada.

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