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Presented at CHI 2012, Touché is a capacitive system for pervasive, continuous sensing. Among other amazing capabilities, it can accurately sense gestures a user makes on his own body. “It is conceivable that one day mobile devices could have no screens or buttons, and rely exclusively on the body as the input surface.” Touché.

Noticing that many of the same sensors, silicon, and batteries used in smartphones are being used to create smarter artificial limbs, Fast Company draws the conclusion that the market for smartphones is driving technology development useful for bionics. While interesting enough, the article doesn’t continue to the next logical and far more interesting possibility: that phones themselves are becoming parts of our bodies. To what extent are smartphones already bionic organs, and how could we tell if they were? I’m actively researching design in this area – stay tuned for more about the body-incorporated phone.

A study provides evidence that talking into a person’s right ear can affect behavior more effectively than talking into the left.

One of the best known asymmetries in humans is the right ear dominance for listening to verbal stimuli, which is believed to reflect the brain’s left hemisphere superiority for processing verbal information.

I heavily prefer my left ear for phone calls. So much so that I have trouble understanding people on the phone when I use my right ear. Should I be concerned that my brain seems to be inverted?

Read on and it becomes clear that going beyond perceptual psychology, the scientists are terrifically shrewd:

Tommasi and Marzoli’s three studies specifically observed ear preference during social interactions in noisy night club environments. In the first study, 286 clubbers were observed while they were talking, with loud music in the background. In total, 72 percent of interactions occurred on the right side of the listener. These results are consistent with the right ear preference found in both laboratory studies and questionnaires and they demonstrate that the side bias is spontaneously displayed outside the laboratory.

In the second study, the researchers approached 160 clubbers and mumbled an inaudible, meaningless utterance and waited for the subjects to turn their head and offer either their left of their right ear. They then asked them for a cigarette. Overall, 58 percent offered their right ear for listening and 42 percent their left. Only women showed a consistent right-ear preference. In this study, there was no link between the number of cigarettes obtained and the ear receiving the request.

In the third study, the researchers intentionally addressed 176 clubbers in either their right or their left ear when asking for a cigarette. They obtained significantly more cigarettes when they spoke to the clubbers’ right ear compared with their left.

I’m picturing the scientists using their grant money to pay cover at dance clubs and try to obtain as many cigarettes as possible – carefully collecting, then smoking, their data – with the added bonus that their experiment happens to require striking up conversation with clubbers of the opposite sex who are dancing alone. One assumes that, if the test subject happened to be attractive, once the cigarette was obtained (or not) the subject was invited out onto the terrace so the scientist could explain the experiment and his interesting line of work. Well played!

Another MRI study, this time investigating how we learn parts of speech:

The test consisted of working out the meaning of a new term based on the context provided in two sentences. For example, in the phrase “The girl got a jat for Christmas” and “The best man was so nervous he forgot the jat,” the noun jat means “ring.” Similarly, with “The student is nising noodles for breakfast” and “The man nised a delicious meal for her” the hidden verb is “cook.”

“This task simulates, at an experimental level, how we acquire part of our vocabulary over the course of our lives, by discovering the meaning of new words in written contexts,” explains Rodríguez-Fornells. “This kind of vocabulary acquisition based on verbal contexts is one of the most important mechanisms for learning new words during childhood and later as adults, because we are constantly learning new terms.”

The participants had to learn 80 new nouns and 80 new verbs. By doing this, the brain imaging showed that new nouns primarily activate the left fusiform gyrus (the underside of the temporal lobe associated with visual and object processing), while the new verbs activated part of the left posterior medial temporal gyrus (associated with semantic and conceptual aspects) and the left inferior frontal gyrus (involved in processing grammar).

This last bit was unexpected, at first. I would have guessed that verbs would be learned in regions of the brain associated with motor action. But according to this study, verbs seem to be learned only as grammatical concepts. In other words, knowledge of what it means to run is quite different than knowing how to run. Which makes sense if verb meaning is accessed by representational memory rather than declarative memory.

Researchers at the University of Tampere in Finland found that,

Interfaces that vibrate soon after we click a virtual button (on the order of tens of milliseconds) and whose vibrations have short durations are preferred. This combination simulates a button with a “light touch” – one that depresses right after we touch it and offers little resistance.

Users also liked virtual buttons that vibrated after a longer delay and then for a longer subsequent duration. These buttons behaved like ones that require more force to depress.

This is very interesting. When we think of multimodal feedback needing to make cognitive sense, synchronization first comes to mind. But there are many more synesthesias in our experience that can only be uncovered through careful reflection. To make an interface feel real, we must first examine reality.

Researchers at the Army Research Office developed a vibrating belt with eight mini actuators — “tactors” — that signify all the cardinal directions. The belt is hooked up to a GPS navigation system, a digital compass and an accelerometer, so the system knows which way a soldier is headed even if he’s lying on his side or on his back.

The tactors vibrate at 250 hertz, which equates to a gentle nudge around the middle. Researchers developed a sort of tactile morse code to signify each direction, helping a soldier determine which way to go, New Scientist explains. A soldier moving in the right direction will feel the proper pattern across the front of his torso. A buzz from the front, side and back tactors means “halt,” a pulsating movement from back to front means “move out,” and so on.

A t-shirt design by Derek Eads.

Recent research reveals some fun facts about aural-tactile synesthesia:

Both hearing and touch, the scientists pointed out, rely on nerves set atwitter by vibration. A cell phone set to vibrate can be sensed by the skin of the hand, and the phone’s ring tone generates sound waves — vibrations of air — that move the eardrum…

A vibration that has a higher or lower frequency than a sound… tends to skew pitch perception up or down. Sounds can also bias whether a vibration is perceived.

The ability of skin and ears to confuse each other also extends to volume… A car radio may sound louder to a driver than his passengers because of the shaking of the steering wheel. “As you make a vibration more intense, what people hear seems louder,” says Yau. Sound, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to change how intense vibrations feel.

Max Mathews, electronic music pioneer, has died.

Though computer music is at the edge of the avant-garde today, its roots go back to 1957, when Mathews wrote the first version of “Music,” a program that allowed an IBM 704 mainframe computer to play a 17-second composition. He quickly realized, as he put it in a 1963 article in Science, “There are no theoretical limits to the performance of the computer as a source of musical sounds.”

Rest in peace, Max.

UPDATE: I haven’t updated this blog in a while, and I realized after posting this that my previous post was about the 2010 Modulations concert. Max Mathews played at Modulations too, and that was the last time I saw him.

I finally got around to recording and mastering the set I played at the CCRMA Modulations show a few months back. Though I’ve been a drum and bass fan for many years, this year’s Modulations was the first time I’d mixed it for others. Hope you like it!

Modulations 2010
Drum & Bass | 40:00 | May 2010

Download (mp3, 82.7 MB)

1. Excision — System Check
2. Randomer — Synth Geek
3. Noisia — Deception
4. Bassnectar — Teleport Massive (Bassnectar Remix)
5. Moving Fusion, Shimon, Ant Miles — Underbelly
6. Brookes Brothers — Crackdown
7. The Ian Carey Project — Get Shaky (Matrix & Futurebound’s Nip & Tuck Mix)
8. Netsky — Eyes Closed
9. Camo & Krooked — Time Is Ticking Away feat. Shaz Sparks

Over the last few days this video has been so much bombshell to many of my music-prone friends.

It’s called the Multi-Touch Light Table and it was created by East Bay-based artist/fidget-house DJ Gregory Kaufman. The video is beautifully put together, highlighting the importance of presentation when documenting new ideas.

I really like some of the interaction ideas presented in the video. Others, I’m not so sure about. But that’s all right: the significance of the MTLT is that it’s the first surface-based DJ tool that systematically accounts for the needs of an expert user.

Interestingly, even though it looks futuristic and expensive to us, interfaces like this will eventually be the most accessible artistic tools. Once multi-touch surface are ubiquitous, the easiest way to gain some capability will be to use inexpensive or open-source software. The physical interfaces created for DJing, such as Technics 1200s, are prosthetic objects (as are musical instruments), and will remain more expensive because mechanical contraptions will always be. Now, that isn’t to say that in the future our interfaces won’t evolve to become digital, networked, and multi-touch sensitive, or even that their physicality will be replaced with a digital haptic display. But one of the initial draws of the MTLT—the fact of its perfectly flat, clean interactive surface—seems exotic to us right now, and in the near future it will be default.

Check out this flexible interface called impress. Flexible displays just look so organic and, well impressive. One day these kinds of surface materials will become viable displays and they’ll mark a milestone in touch computing.

It’s natural to stop dancing between songs. The beat changes, the sub-rhythms reorient themselves, a new hook is presented and a new statement is made. But stopping dancing between songs is undesirable. We wish to lose ourselves in as many consecutive moments as possible. The art of mixing music is to fulfill our desire to dance along to continuous excellent music, uninterrupted for many minutes (or, in the best case, many hours) at a time. (Even if we don’t explicitly move our bodies to the music, when we listen our minds are dancing; the same rules apply.)

I don’t remember what prompted me to take that note, but it was probably not that the mixing was especially smooth.

A tomato hailing from Capay, California.

LHCSound is a site where you can listen to sonified data from the Large Hadron Collider. Some thoughts:

  • That’s one untidy heap of a website. Is this how it feels to be inside the mind of a brilliant physicist?
  • The name “LHCSound” refers to “Csound”, a programming language for audio synthesis and music composition. But how many of their readers will make the connection?
  • If they are expecting their readers to know what Csound is, then their explanation of the process they used for sonification falls way short. I want to know the details of how they mapped their data to synthesis parameters.
  • What great sampling material this will make. I wonder how long before we hear electronic music incorporating these sounds.

The Immersive Pinball demo I created for Fortune’s Brainstorm:Tech conference was featured in a BBC special on haptics.

I keep watching the HTC Sense unveiling video from Mobile World Congress 2010. The content is pretty cool, but I’m more fascinated by the presentation itself. Chief marketing officer John Wang gives a simply electrifying performance. It almost feels like an Apple keynote.

The iFeel_IM haptic interface has been making rounds on the internet lately. I tried it at CHI 2010 a few weeks ago and liked it a lot. Affective (emotional haptic) interfaces are full of potential. IFeel_IM mashes together three separate innovations:

  • Touch feedback in several different places on the body: spine, tummy, waist.
  • Touch effects that are generated from emotional language.
  • Synchronization to visuals from Second Life

All are very interesting. The spine haptics seemed a stretch to me, but the butterfly-in-the-tummy was surprisingly effective. The hug was good, but a bit sterile. Hug interfaces need nuance to bring them to the next level of realism.

The fact that the feedback is generated from the emotional language of another person seemed to be one of the major challenges—the software is built to extract emotionally-charged sentences using linguistic models. For example, if someone writes “I love you” to you, your the haptic device on your tummy will react by creating a butterflies-like sensation. As an enaction devotee I would rather actuate a hug with a hug sensor. Something about the translation of words to haptics is difficult for me to accept. But it could certainly be a lot of fun in some scenarios!

I’ve re-recorded my techno mix Awake with significantly higher sound quality. So if you downloaded a copy be sure to replace it with the new file!


Techno | 46:01 | October 2009

Download (mp3, 92 MB)

1. District One (a.k.a. Bart Skils & Anton Pieete) — Dubcrystal
2. Saeed Younan — Kumbalha (Sergio Fernandez Remix)
3. Pete Grove — I Don’t Buy It
4. DBN — Asteroidz featuring Madita (D-Unity Remix)
5. Wehbba & Ryo Peres — El Masnou
6. Broombeck — The Clapper
7. Luca & Paul — Dinamicro (Karotte by Gregor Tresher Remix)
8. Martin Worner — Full Tilt
9. Joris Voorn — The Deep

I recently started using Eclipse on OS X and it was so unresponsive, it was almost unusable. Switching tabs was slow, switching perspectives was hella slow. I searched around the web for a solid hour for how to make it faster and finally found the solution. Maybe someone can use it.

My machine is running OS X 10.5, and I have 2 GB of RAM. (This is important because the solution requires messing with how Eclipse handles memory. If you have a different amount of RAM, these numbers may not work and you’ll need to fiddle with them.)

  • Save your work and quit Eclipse.
  • Open the Eclipse application package by right-clicking (or Control-clicking) on and select “Show Package Contents.”
  • Navigate to Contents→MacOS→, and open “eclipse.ini” in your favorite text editor.
  • Edit the line that starts with -”XX:MaxPermSize” to say “-XX:MaxPermSize=128m”.
  • Before that line, add a line that says “-XX:PermSize=64m”.
  • Edit the line that starts with “-Xms” to say “-Xms40m”.
  • Edit the line that starts ith “-Xmx” to say “-Xmx768m”.
  • Save & relaunch Eclipse.

Worked like a charm for me.

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In music

By David Birnbaum

Digital Orchestra concert approaches

On 27, Feb 2008 | One Comment | In music | By David Birnbaum

Rulers in DCS

The McGill University Digital Orchestra is putting on their first performance on March 5th at 7:30 p.m. in Montreal’s Pollack Hall. The lovely and talented Xenia Pestova will be playing the Rulers, an instrument I invented. The piece she will be playing, which I haven’t heard yet, was composed by D. Andrew Stewart and is the first music to be written for the instrument. There will be a live webcast of the show. To watch it, launch the QuickTime application (free download) a few minutes before the start of the show, select “Open URL in New Player” from the File menu, and enter: rtsp://

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Vibration @ CES: The ButtKicker

On 10, Jan 2008 | No Comments | In interfaces, music | By David Birnbaum

A company called Guitammer has just released a product called the ButtKicker Gamer at CES. Vibrating gaming chairs are nothing new, but this is a $150 peripheral that can be attached to your existing computer chair, which seems a lot more convenient and portable. What I found really interesting was that on its website the company also offers a version called the “ButtKicker Concert” (lol), specifically designed for musical performance. Their website boasts that the device has excellent “musical accuracy”, complete with testimony from a drummer who said that he is able to feel the timing of his ghost notes.

The ButtKicker seems to be an instrument-independent vibrotactile feedback augmentation device for musical performance self-monitoring. And that’s kinda cool!

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Problems and prospects for Gibson’s self-tuning guitar

On 11, Dec 2007 | One Comment | In music, robotics | By David Birnbaum

Gibson has announced a guitar with a built-in self-tuning mechanism. Some have suggested that there is a problem with allowing people to skip learning how to tune a guitar before they play it, because tuning helps develop the ear. I think this is a valid concern, and readers of my papers would know I don’t think lowering the entry fee for musical instrumental interaction is, in itself, a “good thing.” At the same time, there are plenty of advantages offered by a self-tuning guitar that have nothing at all to do with ear training, such as avoiding the need to bring a capo to gigs, or to bring more than one guitar to a show for quickly playing two consecutive songs than require drastically different guitar tunings. (Besides, there are plenty of other excellent ways to train your ear.) Quick but accurate tuning changes will also surely be exploited in composition; tuning changes can be done in the middle of a piece, and the musical capabilities and quirkiness of the auto-tuner could even be used for some as-yet-unknown artistic end.

What I find especially interesting is how the words “world’s first robot guitar” are tossed around in this press release. First of all, it seems as if the word “robot” is being used vaguely to refer to the presence of a servo system. If this guitar is robotic, then so is my laptop for its ability to read and eject optical media. I think we’re going to see more of this, similar to the way “net” was overused in the nineties. We are entering a robo-sheik era where any product that can possibly justify doing so will be incorporating the word “robot” into its name.

As for the “world’s first” claim, someone should tell Gibson about TransPerformance, the company that has already been selling automatic tuner retrofits since 2005, as well as the dozens of other music technology projects that are based on guitar interaction and involve motors. It’s old, but anyone who hasn’t yet seen the League of Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) video of the LEMUR Guitar Bot should check it out:

It’s easier for me to accept calling the LEMUR Guitar Bot a “robot” than the Gibson self-tuner. What do you think?

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Rulers: First contact with composer and performer

On 21, Jun 2007 | No Comments | In music | By David Birnbaum

Last week the Rulers v1.0 were unveiled to composer D. Andrew Stewart who will be writing Rulers music, and musician Xenia Pestova who will be performing the instrument next spring. The meeting went very well—the artists found the interface visually and tactually inspiring, which would have been obvious by the way they played with it even if they had not told me so. I took some video of the encounter, posted below. Note that this was the very first time that the interface was hooked up to sound software, so the mapping and physical modeling synth were thrown together to get something working. In other words, the sound in the video doesn’t represent how the system will behave in the end. However I think it’s still pretty clear that the interface is highly responsive to instrumental gestures. I’ll be posting more as software, musical exercises, and eventually pieces are written for it.

Update: I’m having issues with the video… apparently Sony’s MPG isn’t being recognized by any video playback application I’ve tried yet except for the Finder preview. YouTube and Motionbox both don’t recognize them either. I hope I will solve the problem soon.

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Why does Arduino have to be so fabulous?

On 21, Jun 2007 | No Comments | In interfaces, music | By David Birnbaum

Converting analog voltages to computer data has been a central part of my life for four years now. Back in the dark ages, I used the Atomic Pro, a $1500 plastic white box. In 2005, my colleague Mark Marshall developed the AVR-HID. I have built upwards of five of them, and they work really well. But a few months back I tried using Arduino, and it quickly stole my heart: eight channels of 10-bit A/D on a PCB the size of a twoonie. More importantly, it comes with a free lightweight application for programming the microcontroller, which I prefer to using the Terminal. I moved the Rulers to the Arduino platform and will use it again for my Breakflute.

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Foolish behavior

On 25, Mar 2007 | One Comment | In music | By David Birnbaum

This post is a bit off topic, but I have worked on both public radio broadcasts and webcasts, so I have some interest in the absurd royalty hike for internet radio stations that seems like it will be ruthlessly effective in smothering them out of business.

Under the new rules, the retroactive royalties owed by almost all of today’s independent webcasters will be greater than their total revenue. Wait a second,

How can the value that music brings to webcasters exceed webcasters’ revenue? Of course, the value of music can’t be made so low as to ensure every webcaster makes a profit; but isn’t it equally ridiculous to raise that value to ensure that no webcaster can survive?

Could the Copyright Royalty Board have been unaware that its decision would have lethal financial consequences for most webcasters? Or could it be their intention was to shut down the large majority of today’s channels, to leave the entire market to enormous media companies chasing high-profile advertising? Either way, the effect a purely mass-market approach will have on webcast playlists will likely be similar to the effect it has had on the quality of traditional radio.

The internet offers many strong advantages over traditional radio: it lacks expensive and paralyzing FCC regulations, while affording a lower barrier to entry, infinite bandwidth, and a more precisely targeted audience. The fact that internet radio stations can survive with little administration and technical infrastructure means stations can be numerous, small, targeted, and innovative. In contrast, a payola-ridden and highly politicized scene on the airwaves has led to less diversity in programming than ever before. In my opinion, there is very little good music on traditional radio — something that anyone with a modicum of taste can hear absolutely clearly.

I do not know if webcasting helps or hurts the status quo of the recording industry, and I don’t care. I don’t have a stake in it anymore. However I do believe that webcasting brings higher quality music into my life. People seem to like internet radio, so the labels should find a way to profit from the quality that internet radio uniquely offers rather than change the product in a way that will reduce its appeal. Otherwise they are missing a lucritive business opportunity, and commit the unforgivable sin of stamping out a vital part of many people’s musical enrichment. Just another example of foolish behavior on the part of the recording industry I suppose.

For more, check out this roundup.

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On 22, Mar 2007 | No Comments | In music | By David Birnbaum

My Powerplant Family partner Lucy May just told me she is going to be choreographing a piece to be played on a Hang drum, a pitched metal instrument from Berne, Switzerland invented in 2000. Apparently these things are all the rage in the Netherlands right now. Here’s a video of a Hang player jamming… not in a laboratory or high tech concert hall, but at a picnic. Who ever heard of music being played at a picnic?! Impossible.

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Feeling jazz

On 13, Mar 2007 | No Comments | In music | By David Birnbaum

Last night I heard an excellent show by my roomate’s jazz band, Jazz Warriors. It was mostly acoustic, but he used a loop pedal, delay pedal, turntable/scratch mixer, and vocal mic alongside his regular jazz kit. The turntable and vocal mic added a little hiphop flavor, but the loop pedal really changed the performance possibilities—he was able to play different and more rhythms than would normally be possible, and also self-harmonize while singing. But at the same time the functions he was using on the pedal were extremely basic: in-point set, out-point set, on/off, sample trigger, etc.

In terms of vibrotactility, the performance space was excellent because the floor was entirely wooden and hollow. Almost all the instruments in the band could be felt as well as heard. Unfortunately the tabla and keyboard were only audible, but the rest of the instruments could be felt. The upright bass (amplified), saxophone, and individual components of the drum kit seemed to be differentiable. I felt the upright bass and lower sax frequencies in the chair I was sitting in and throughout my whole body as a mostly-constant background presence. Additionally, the snare drum felt like a distinct punch in my chest and hands. But the most distinct vibrotactile sensations came from the toms, which, in different combinations, would light up separate regions of the soles of my feet. For instance, one would be felt in my heel, another in the area just behind my toes, another in the instep. To put it dryly, tom fills were mapped to spatiotemporal patterns of vibrotactile sensation in my feet. It was really fun.

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