Move to the Music

This past weekend I had the awesome experience of seeing some HCI in the wild. I was at the Mingei Museum for one of their Early Evening events featuring Bostich and Fussible from Nortec Collective, and they were creating music using an unusual table. The table is a glowing blue surface with a collection of acrylic blocks with funky symbols placed on it. The artists create and change the music simply by moving and spinning the blocks in relation to each other. I was thrilled to recognize the table as the reacTable, a research project from the Music Technology Group at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona, that I’d read about in my Ubiquitous Computing class.

The Tangible Interface

reacTable in action

The table is a unique interface to a software based synthesizer for electronic music. Before the reacTable, the DJ using this synthesize had to use a mouse to control the music, while viewing the waveforms on screen. As you can imagine, creating complex music with the mouse interface is not very natural or intuitive. The Reactable allows more than one DJ to manipulate multiple tracks easily and naturally on a shared table.

The DJs associate tracks with a certain set of blocks that each have unique patterns on the base of the block. When those blocks are placed on the surface, a video camera beneath the surface can “see” the unique pattern, recognize the track and start playing it. The waveform is displayed on the glowing table to provide visual feedback to the musician. By moving it closer or further from the center or other blocks, the music can be transformed – sped up, slowed down, filtered, amplified. You can see a video of how this looks below.

Even if you have never DJ-ed before, you might be able to see how manipulating these blocks is a much more natural interface than using a mouse to move various sliders. The table itself is a joy to look at, adapting into the dark environment of a club without the harsh glare of a laptop screen. As a result, the reacTable has been quite successful; the first major event being Björk’s world tour in 2007, which premiered at the Coachella Music Festival that year. In 2010, Reactable released a award-winning mobile versions (without the blocks) for the iPhone and iPad and more recently, one for Android.

Musical Instruments as Interface

Musical instruments pose a unique problem for HCI. Think about it… We wouldn’t call a violin poorly designed, given the beautiful music it can create and its enduring nature. But at the same time, a user study with novices trying out a violin for the first time is bound to prove disastrous.
Will they find it easy and enjoyable to use? Probably not.
Will they achieve the goal of creating beautiful music? Almost certainly not.
So how do we qualitatively design and test for the unique experience of creating music? I find this to be a unique challenge in HCI.

We all agree that musical instruments are powerful and valuable interfaces, as evidenced by the variety we have preserved for so many generations. However, in the brand new world of digital everything, I’m interested to see if we are able to create similarly enduring interfaces that will stand the test of time as well as the violin has.


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