I find Imogen Heap fascinating. Since 2009, the Grammy Award-winner has been working on a set of gloves that will allow her to produce digital music while onstage, without being trapped behind a laptop or keyboard. She first saw Elly Jessop’s VAMP system at MIT’s media lab, and by 2011 had unveiled her own developing version of the gloves at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh. With the help of Tom Mitchell, an expert in computer science and and robotics at the University of West England, Heap has gone through several iterations and finally arrived at Mi.Mu, a dataglove that tracks your hand movements and sends the info to your favorite music software.
What it enables Heap (and other musicians) to do is control the faders, pitch control, digital voices, synthesizers, etc., in her electronic recording studio without having to actually touch the switches on a soundboard or the keys of her laptop. This might seem like overkill if you’re creating techno-pop songs alone at your computer, but for a recording artist who tours, like Heap, this allows her to actually perform her music live. Which could shut down everyone who’s ever criticized that “watching a dude stand at a turntable for two hours isn’t real music.”
The idea is similar to the Lady’s Glove, a dataglove developed in the ’90s by performance artist Laetitia Sonami.
Kelly Snook, one of Mi.Mu’s engineers, told CNN:
We are not the first to do this, nor will we be the last. We’ve just been really passionate about doing it for music and doing it on stage and breaking down the barriers between the audience and the performer and making it much more intuitive the way the performer can communicate what they are doing electronically.
In this video, Imogen Heap demonstrates how far the tech has come in the past five years — what the sensors and motion strips on the fingers look like now, and how she hopes to improve them even further. You can also see how the gloves interact with her synthesizer program to create music.
The gloves are open-sourced, both in their hardware and software. There was a Kickstarter last year to try and raise money for the project, which would’ve cost you £1,200 per glove if its funding had succeeded. Instead, they created an online community were people can use off-the-shelf technology to build and customize gloves of their own.
Ariana Grande was so impressed with a pair that she tried out, she ordered a set to take on tour with her next year. (You can watch that video here.)
So you’re not going to put these on and suddenly know how to play the piano, contrary to a lot of the headlines you’re going to see about becoming an instant musician. If you’re tone deaf you’re not really going to know which way waving your hand around is changing the song. But if you’re a producer or a sound technician, it’s a very cool way to get physically involved with creating music.
“The gloves have certainly changed the way I make music,” Heap told CNN. “I’m not going to say it’s going to change the world. It’s certainly part of a big movement of wearable tech and I really hope that we can move forward the game.”