Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Banana Pianos, Play-Doh Gamepads, and Theremins

Jay Silver has what many physics students would consider a dream job: He tinkers with new technologies every day as a graduate student in MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group. Together with his colleague Eric Rosenbaum, he has developed a fun do-it-yourself inventor's kit that can turn many everyday objects into touchpads that connect with your laptop.

In the video below, Rosenbaum and Silver highlight some of the ways they've used their kickstarter project -- called Makey Makey -- including a banana keyboard, piano stairs, and a Play-Doh gamepad for playing Mario Bros. But the beauty of the project is that its applications are only limited by the user's imagination.

Makey Makey relies on our bodies' ability to conduct small amounts of electricity. A metal clip connects the Makey Makey hardware to an everyday object, such as a banana or Play-Doh, and the user holds one more metal clip in their hand or around their wrist. Touching the object completes a circuit through the user's body, enabling the user to perform mouse clicks and keyboard strokes with their unique touchpad.

With a USB input and compatibility with most modern operating systems, this DIY project is ready for action. But this project may not have been realized without inspiration from an undergraduate physics lab staple: the theremin.

Theremins Everywhere

Invented in the early 1900's, the theremin was one of the first electronic instruments, and thereminists only needed their hands to play the instrument. Theremins are essentially hand-controlled capacitors with a thereminist's hand acting as one half of a capacitor. By moving her hand closer to one of the instrument's antenna, a thereminist can increase the frequency and pitch of the audio output. Another antenna works in a similar fashion but controls volume instead.

Together, these two controllable capacitors make for a unique playing experience, and the somewhat spooky sound has been used in a number of popular songs. Theremins produce a distinct electronic sound that has been likened to the adults' voices in Peanuts cartoons. With this tone, accomplished thereminists have re-created famous songs. After watching the video below, you'll appreciate Gnarls Barkley's song "crazy" in a whole new way.

Starting in the top right pane, you can see and hear the theremin in action.

Rosenbaum and Silver decided to build upon the theremin with an earlier project called Drawdio, which promises to "turn almost anything into a theremin." The researchers adapted the instrument to rely on not only human conductivity but also electrical flow in graphite. Consequently, Drawdio users can draw lines on their paper and then create music by "scratching" their drawings with the Drawdio-equipped pencil held in place.

The applications extend ever farther, and you can see a number of novel ways that theremins can be used in the video below.

Pretty awesome, if you ask me. In addition to these two projects, this tinkering duo has worked on several other DIY kits and applications. You can find more information about those projects on their website.


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