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Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Kinect and the Future of Music

In Music on April 28, 2011 at 2:28 PM

In a previous post (“Minecraft and Creative Space”) I tried to point out the contributions that technology can make to our creative pursuits. The idea was that software like Minecraft allows us to do things we could have never done otherwise, although it requires that we do those things in certain ways (i.e. with colorful little cubes).

There is a great website out there called KinectHacks (www.kinecthacks.net). Let me start off by saying that the Kinect is an accessory for the XBox 360 which allows users to put down all the little devices and become the controllers themselves. Instead of buttons and joysticks, a player navigates menus and games with their body’s movements and spoken commands.

Some industrious hackers (in the good sense) have dismantled the Kinect’s basic functionality in order to apply it to diverse new contexts. In addition to Dance Central, we’ve now got motion-controlled robots, interactive advertisements, Minority Report-like computer screens, and even medical imaging applications. There’s a lot of really great stuff on there that I could mention, but I want to hone in on a few musical contributions.

Ever heard of a theremin? It’s like that but way cooler.

People can use their movements to produce music. Granted, that statement describes singing or playing just about any instrument pretty darn accurately. I will also grant that, strictly speaking, these performers are just modifying the characteristics of music that is being played by an external device. Set your reservations aside.

I think that something special is going on here. The idea that people can get up in front of camera and move around and have that translated into a different expressive medium is pretty exciting. We can listen to their movements in a way not quite as pure as the movements themselves, but it’s getting closer. Movements become sounds, tastes become tactile sensations, sounds become smells. That last one is a little weird, but I think the point is still interesting. What if our technology could allow us to produce art that engages all of our senses?

This is what actual life is like – we are constantly surrounded with overlapping sensations of sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell, and it can be hard to differentiate (and why do that?). What our technology has failed to do so far is accurately replicate this holistic experience; it has always required well defined limits between audio, visual, etc.

The Kinect hackers have offered us a glimpse into the future wherein these superfluous distinctions can finally be abandoned.  The more refined our technology becomes, the more genuinely it reflects actual life – we’re talking about restoring sight to the blind and creating whole new virtual realities! That’s pretty cool to imagine, and we won’t have to imagine for much longer.

Minecraft and Creative Space

In Games/Tech on April 28, 2011 at 1:40 PM

People like Jaron Lanier (http://www.jaronlanier.com/) worry about the limitations which technology places on our creative pursuits. The staple example is MIDI, the music system which demands precisely-defined musical notes with a digital context that computing software can understand.

The problem with this, according to Lanier, is that life as experienced through human consciousness is not precise and transcribable; cramping it up in a piecemeal system does violence to human creative potential. Practicing what he preaches, Lanier provides many flighty, humanistic metaphors like, “Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith” (5). That sort of statement doesn’t fly in an operating system (or a dictionary for that matter).

There’s certainly some truth to Lanier’s fear. The tools we use will always have a limiting effect on our production. Violins work woderfully for certain types of music, synthesizers for others. Nevertheless, I think Lanier might focus on the wrong end of this process when he laments the loss of creative capacity which comes from selecting a particular tool. When I choose to use a blog rather than writing on paper, my product will obsviously reflect that decision, and maybe some things are sacrificed. But at the same time, choosing this particular tool affords me a wealth of new creative opportunities.

Take for instance the sensational game called Minecraft (http://www.minecraft.net/). This game independently developed by Mojang enjoys an enormous cult following despite its simplistic graphics and basic gameplay.

Minecraft allows players to harvest simple blocks of resources which they may then use to construct buildings and other structures. This premise is ridiculously limited – players literally only have access to a bunch of colorful cubes (similar to MIDI’s precise notes?). Nevertheless, players are able to take these little blocks and use them in awe-imspiring ways. How uniquely human and creative are entire cities made of blocks? Or a giant, blocky version of the earth? Even a 1:1 scale model of the starship enterprise?

The point I’m driving at is simple: while our technologies do confine us within certain parameters, no matter what medium we are discussing, they also open up new creative avenues which we would be unable to pursue on our own. I think it’s pretty cool that I can log on to Minecraft and build a city. What makes our technology so human is its contribution to our basic biology.