With the right flourish, a simple piece of fabric can be dazzling. Just think about the people who twirl flags in parades, or the matadors who dodge peril with a graceful swoosh of their capes. Of course, to do these things well requires practice. But in general, cloth is a highly accessible medium—pretty much anyone with bath towel or a T-shirt can swirl, swoosh, or dangle with proficiency (though if you’re really so inclined, maybe try jumping in the parade before the bullring). Luiz Zanotello, a Brazilian designer, mined fabric’s innate approachability for a recent project, building a sensor-equipped cloth that can serve as a musical instrument and generate its accompanying visualizations.
Nama was created as Zanotello’s graduation project at São Paulo State University, in Brazil. The device takes the form of a medium-sized rectangle of cloth, outfitted with five accelerometers sewn into the fabric using conductive thread and connected to a LilyPad Arduino microcontroller. The data from the sensors is transferred wirelessly to a computer, where the cloth’s motion is mapped and translated into sound and light.
Zanotello had been casting about for ideas for "humanizing the experience of interaction," he explains, trying to settle on "something that could relate with its user through purely human feelings and non-verbal channels." At that, Nama succeeds. True, more traditional interfaces are becoming more and more accessible all the time—think about Windows 8's bright, bold tiles or the one-app-at-a-time ethos of iOS—but they’re not as easy as grabbing a piece of cloth and doing what comes naturally.
The tinkling notes heard in the video above, however, are just one possible expression of the cloth’s movement. Zanotello views Nama not as a musical instrument but as an interface that’s flexible in every sense, and he hopes others will tweak, hack, and adapt the cloth for their own projects. In particular, he sees potential for performance-art pieces, experimental theater works, and contemporary dance groups. "One tricky thing was to build something that could easily be rebuilt by anyone . . . using recent low-tech technologies with an easy DIY approach," he explains.
It’s easy to see how diverse Nama’s applications could be, much in the same way we’ve seen artists and hackers harness the motion-capturing power of Kinect for their own ends. Movement is a powerful tool for creative expression, more intuitive than any piece of software and more accessible than any physical instrument. But where the Kinect is a pure translation of movement into something else, Nama is a bit different. Though a simple one, it is still an instrument—a mediating object that can be teased and coaxed and learned by the user. And while part of the appeal is that anyone can pick it up and wave it around and see and hear what they’re doing, another draw is that if you gave it to a flag twirler, or a bullfighter, you’d be likely to end up with something totally different.
[Hat tip: Creator’s Project]