Me, The Machine
May 10, 2014 11:49 PM   Subscribe

Me The Machine, from Imogen Heap's forthcoming album Sparks, is the first song written for and performed with the Mi.Mu musical gloves, designed by Heap and a team of programmers, engineers, designers and musicians over the last four years with the aim of making creating and performing digital music "more like the experiences we have with traditional instruments: using the dexterity and mobility of the human body".

Imogen's discussed and demoed various versions of the gloves a few times over the last couple of years - one from this year, and longer talks at Wired 2012 (including a live performance of Me The Machine) and at the Arts and Humanities Research Council's 2012 Digital Transformations Moot. Imogen also appeared on Dara O'Briain's Science Club with a brief explanation of the gloves, and another live Me The Machine, which can be seen in full here.

There are lots of videos and updates from the technology and engineering team on the Gloves Project blog, charting the development of the gloves and experiments with things like PlayStation Move. There's also a reddit AMA from about a month ago with Imogen and most of the team.

Lastly, a couple of neat videos from the Kickstarter updates - here's Charlotte Hatherley experimenting with the gloves, team member Kelly Snook triggering samples from YMCA by making the American Sign Language letters, and a quick demo of controlling guitar effects with the gloves whilst playing.

If you want your own pair and don't want to wait for the production model (which is apparently still going ahead despite the Kickstarter failing to meet its goal, but probably won't be available in the next year according to the backer updates), there's an extensive guide on the Gloves Project website to building the ArduIMU version of the gloves, including advice on sourcing the components and links to the software used to map movements and gestures.

Finally, a huge list of interesting links to other data and input gloves, musical and non-musical, assembled by the Gloves Project team.
posted by emmtee (30 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Not be a stick in the mud, but I remember seeing similar ideas demonstrated on the television show "That's Incredible" in the early 80s.
posted by readyfreddy at 12:09 AM on May 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

MMMMMMax Headroom room room rrrrrrrr Max HHHHHeadroom
posted by Sebmojo at 1:23 AM on May 11, 2014

part of me thinks this is awesome and interesting.

Part of me wants his electronic music to remain cold and souless, performed by locked-hip stick figures who only move from the wrist down. Allowing them to move about like humans feels... wrong.

The cranky lo-tek in me tends to win these arguments.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 5:36 AM on May 11, 2014

I'm still not sure I understand how much control she actually has over the playing of the music, as opposed to things like volume, etc., through the gloves. The song was...okay? Kind of on the nose with the technical terms.
posted by xingcat at 6:03 AM on May 11, 2014

Not be a stick in the mud, but I remember seeing similar ideas demonstrated on the television show "That's Incredible" in the early 80s.

Well, sure, but people were put off when they filled them full of gasoline and suggested they'd turn into a raging fireball if you played anything faster than 80 bpm.
posted by yoink at 6:21 AM on May 11, 2014

I can't wait for Sparks' new album, Imogen Heap.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:27 AM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was browsing these links last week. Wonderful to see fledgling technology take shape. Her passion is inspiring.

The rough edges (when things don't trigger or trigger accidentally) actually add to the charm for me.

Thanks for compiling this emmtee.
posted by erebora at 6:28 AM on May 11, 2014

xingcat: the second video in the post (the first one after the cut) shows off exactly what she's controlling with her gestures
posted by flatluigi at 7:04 AM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love Imogen Heap, but that song is a bit.. I don't know, it doesn't work for me. It's not saying anything. It lacks her usual passion and nuance.

For example, compare this song to her older looping live performances.

I'm interested to see what she and others can do with the gloves though. It's not every day you get to observe someone creating an entirely new instrument.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:09 AM on May 11, 2014

xingcat: the second video in the post yt (the first one after the cut) shows off exactly what she's controlling with her gestures

It's much more interesting live, and it's fascinating to see how much control she does have, and the breadth of options available to her.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:12 AM on May 11, 2014

"more like the experiences we have with traditional instruments: using the dexterity and mobility of the human body"

Keyboards are traditional instruments. Drums are traditional instruments. An EWI is modeled after traditional instruments. The Eigenharp uses the kind of physical movements that many traditional instruments do. MIDI guitar controllers are pretty decent these days, and there are hybrids like the Moog Guitar (where strings are manipulated electromagnetically for sustain or mute).

Gloves, I would think, would be like playing a theremin. Which is itself a 94 year old instrument, though few people would consider them traditional. Gestures can be musical, but they will forever be set apart from instruments that you hold or feel in some way.

So I thought this was a weird thing to say.
posted by Foosnark at 7:58 AM on May 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

The second video to which flatluigi pointed is very useful. Color me impressed at Ms. Heap's thoughtfulness and vision. Whether this is something that changes the way that people make music or simply becomes a very personalized tool for her to use, I think her effort and initial results deserve more than snarky dismissiveness.
posted by the sobsister at 8:11 AM on May 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Theremin is a good analogy. It doesn't push back like a regular instrument, and pushing back is what makes things physical. The video didn't show a clear relationship between her motions and the sounds, and had sort of a laser harp feel to it.
posted by migurski at 8:11 AM on May 11, 2014

It's official, Imogen Heap is now a cyborg. Good for her. I've been a fan for years, but didn't know anything about this.

The Wired demo is particularly interesting, as noted above, because she describes the experience of creating music with the gloves as well as their capabilities, and the just goes and does it in her usual quietly masterful way.
posted by ephemerae at 8:12 AM on May 11, 2014

This is amazing. Not the greatest song in the world but what an incredible vision all the same.

As the glove tech gets more compact and more accurate, there are probably tons of cool applications for this kind of thing... gaming, virtual environments and simulations, digital painting and modeling... who knows? I don't know that the gloves will have a lasting impact on music, but they will almost certainly have a lasting impact.
posted by cvp at 8:39 AM on May 11, 2014

I'm going to be the asshole who says that to a lay audience this may look like magic, but there are a lot of people doing similar - and even way cooler - things.

They lack the backing of RCA records, so you may have to dig a bit to find them.

I'm glad to see the Kickstarter failed. Kickstarter is too often just a part of a marketing strategy and not a legitimate attempt to fund a project, and this was no exception. Biophysical & kinetic controllers of many kinds can be made at home relatively cheaply, and with open-source software.

No Kickstarter required.

If this sort of maker project isn't your kind of thing, contact your local hackerspace - there's a community of people who are happy to help people connect with this kind of technology, and there's no need to be a part of a rock star's self-promotion campaign. Not only that, but with the gloves, you're locked in to the gloves. what if you want to use more of your body to interact with your music? What if you believe that new music technology should enable musicians to create new things in their own way, rather than through a predetermined system?

I recommend checking out Marco Donnarumma's Xth Sense, which is basically a system of contact mics on your muscles.

Finally, it's kind of a waste of technology to gather a "team of programmers, engineers, designers and musicians," and launch a major marketing campaign, just to put out a bland, insipid electropop song.

Here's a challenge: listen to it with your eyes closed and tell me you can hear the gloves, and the performer/composer's unique personal relationship with her instrument.

I wanted to be wowed.

I wanted to be blown away.

I wanted to hear a new music of the body that is the expression of the performer's idiosyncratic movements in time and space.

What I heard was more Ableton Live.
posted by univac at 9:29 AM on May 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

Gloves, I would think, would be like playing a theremin.

or moving your hand up and down over a roland d-beam

the guitar video didn't impress me in the least - a guitar synth with an expression pedal can do what he did much more smoothly and leave his hands free to play

the problem as i see it is they're trying to invent a new interface that will be as effective as interfaces - (keyboards, guitars, etc) - that have been worked on and adapted through hundreds of years - that's a tall order

furthermore, it's made even more difficult through a lack of tactile feedback - i can feel how hard i'm striking a string or pressing down on a key - with this, i would be just waving my hands around in unresistant air that would not give me tactile feedback on how i was interacting with it

these are major challenges and they're not going to be easy to find solutions to - it's certainly worth researching, but i would want something that would make me feel that a guitar or a keyboard would be a hindrance in comparison - which is why i still make minimal use of things like piano rolls in DAWs or various sequencers and their interfaces - a lot of times, it's just easier to play the notes i want to have happen
posted by pyramid termite at 10:41 AM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

The home demo video showed a little pitch controller function, but I'm still not clear how suitable the thing is as a tool that you can actually like play a little melody on (as opposed to altering patches or triggering sounds or that kind of thing).
posted by thelonius at 11:59 AM on May 11, 2014

It's just not a proper music thread without some cranky guy saying "This bland commercial stuff is crap compared to the obscure noncommercial indie stuff I know about."

Thanks Univac, you've done more to legitimize what Imogene Sparks is doing than anything else on the thread.
posted by happyroach at 1:02 PM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have to admit to being a little perplexed by univac's comment. The gloves are open hardware - linked in the post is the team's own guide to building a set, from parts you're free to acquire wherever you like, or substitute, and with not a penny going to Heap, the project or anyone else.

Similarly, it's made clear on the Kickstarter page that the production model gloves and associated software will be completely open-source once the spec and design are finalised in collaboration with the backers. Again, there'll be no need to pay more than the absolute minimum cost of parts if you're willing to build your own - even the IMU and wifi i/o board are open-source hardware in their own right - and no restrictions on modifying the thing into a hat or sonic bodysuit or bend sensor penis sheath if the idea catches your fancy, or using the software with something else entirely. I don't really see how that constitutes being "locked in to" the hardware.
posted by emmtee at 1:51 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm kind of torn by stuff like this.

There have been glove based controllers before, though this one understands gestures, and it has haptic feedback in the form of vibrating motors like a video game controller.

But gestures are basically just triggers and macros, and when I see stuff like this it seems it's less about actual nuances of performance, and more about Imogen being cyborgy and theatrical.

There are a lot of really amazing electronic music interfaces out there now.

This is one of the most promising and interesting ones I've seen, called a Soundplane.

That isn't a keyboard. Each of those pads can be assigned different notes or sound patches. So you can play, pitch and timbre a lot of different sounds from each pad. Vibrato and glissando and such are very intuitive, as is note bending. Or you can use the entire surface like a hand drum, effectively making a pair of congas that are pitch sensitive from edge to center like a live drum, but with the flexible creative properties of an electronic interface. Imagine a conga you could vibrato and sustain. Or it could easily be a string instrument played with an object or strummed like a guitar.

I've played with one and it was fiendishly expressive. It was a very live instrument with all the programmatic possibilities of an electronic interface. Each one of those pads has the potential to be an entire keyboard scale, but with the modulation of bending a guitar string.

The gloves are cool, but they don't really have the ability to do that many different axises of modulation compared to even a more simple interface.

They do allow a performer to move around the stage more, to dance and engage in theatrical performances.

But I've seen Atom play, and he's about as stiff and teutonic as a performer gets on stage, and the dude utterly smashes it out of the park just mashing buttons. It's incredible. And, well, I listen to music to listen to music, not be distracted by theatrics or showmanship.

I'm not opposed to theatrics or movement, but usually it's a bad sign, and I only reluctantly say that because Imogen is alright in my book.

But if I was forced to choose a final opinion, the gloves and results shown seem a bit twee and gimmicky.
posted by loquacious at 1:54 PM on May 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

"more like the experiences we have with traditional instruments: using the dexterity and mobility of the human body"

Um, why bother trying to imitate traditional instruments when you could just use em without having to invent them?

If you are inventing something (which actually has been kicking around for like 30+ years) maybe you should focus on how it is different from existing instruments rather than the same but buggy and not as expressive.

Frankly this seems like a bunch of gimicky crap where somebody pays someone else to update their kit with some doodads so they can broadcast the subtextual message "hey look at me! I am soo up-to-date!" But then content-wise, there's nothing more than some superficial references to "algorithms" or "code" or other words that have recently appeared in breathless mainstream tech articles.

* See Billy Idol's Cyberpunk.
posted by mr.ersatz at 2:54 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wonder if they've tried combining this with a breath controller, which could be a cool way to control the envelope of notes triggered by the glove.
posted by thelonius at 4:31 PM on May 11, 2014

Frankly this seems like a bunch of gimicky crap where somebody pays someone else to update their kit with some doodads so they can broadcast the subtextual message "hey look at me! I am soo up-to-date!" But then content-wise, there's nothing more than some superficial references to "algorithms" or "code" or other words that have recently appeared in breathless mainstream tech articles.

I started watching the first link, got interrupted by something and ended up listening from the next room to what sounded like good, spacy groove-based contemporary pop music. But hardly anything zeitgeist redefining.
posted by philip-random at 4:49 PM on May 11, 2014

Great post, emmtee. Thanks.

Another recent interview: Imogen Heap launches funding drive for gloves that turn gestures into music
posted by homunculus at 5:00 PM on May 11, 2014

The curious thing to me is, I can understand her feeling that if she's buried behind a ton of gear pressing buttons that somehow this isn't "impressive" to the audience. I'm just not sure I agree with that, as a viewer. Someone above linked to a live performance where she creates loops, live, by singing them into the controllers, building the song gradually and controlling it by turning loops off and on. I remember the first time I saw that, it blew me away. I find that kind of tech mastery just as compelling as these glove things. I'm not bothered by the array of gear when it's in the hands of someone who can manipulate it that well.
posted by dnash at 5:08 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not to go into too much detail, but it is all too true that many other gloves have been made over the years, and it is difficult to say why Heap's stand out.

Except for two reasons:

1) Visibility / genre: look at how many people are seeing this and thinking it is novel. Most new electronic instruments come from very small musical niches, so an established artist prominently using one is actually something noteworthy. In addition, the challenge of using a controller like this within an established popular genre is considerable and more worthy of notice than the hardware per se. But that leads to the observations previously made - if the music sounds exactly the same, who cares how it was made?

2) Commercialization: not that there haven't been lots of attempts to commercialize new instruments, but Heap's kickstarter is revealing due to its transparency, as well as to the obvious problem of price point. Yes, what they were asking for seems over the top, and yes you can DIY this for a lot cheaper. BUT realistically they were asking for the correct price from the perspective of creating a product that will be useable by a non-specialist. Hardware is expensive and difficult to make durable and robust. Solving all of the logistical problems that will make the average musician able to use a controller like this is difficult. Most of the time we are shielded from this fact by mega-corporations investing huge amounts of resources into a product that will be mass-marketed. Or by small companies relying upon well-established practices, like making banks of buttons or faders, or using capacitive or other non-mechanical interfaces.

It is easy to be turned off by the overselling of these gloves' 'novelty', especially given the massive PR blitz they've been undertaking. And all of the observations made above re: tactile interfaces, haptic feedback, etc. are not only very true but old news for people who have been working in this area. But still, there is a real contribution here even if it is smaller than it could be.
posted by ianhattwick at 5:45 PM on May 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I liked the Wired bit. Can't get the laptop to send its image to an external device! Room full of nerds, nobody knows Fn+F5.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:34 AM on May 12, 2014

Cute gimmick? Yes. Groundbreaking new way to interface with music? Probably not so much.
posted by stenseng at 2:17 PM on May 13, 2014

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