Co.Design

Sculpt Sound With Gestures, Using Imogen Heap's $2,000 Gloves

Heap partners with an ex-NASA scientist and others to bring sci-fi musical gloves to the (well-heeled) masses.

Imogen Heap, a singer-songwriter who works largely in electronic sounds (and whom you may remember from her work in the band Frou Frou or this song), has long been confronted with a problem: How do you put on a show for people who are used to seeing guitars, drums, and pianos, when your music is created largely with computers, synthesizers, fader knobs, and processors? Her solution is the Mi.Mu Glove, the next version of which is now on Kickstarter.

We've seen this project before, but just as a sort of technical demonstration. The Kickstarter marks a totally new path for the engineers, artists, and designers of the Mi.Mu team, based in London: they're opening up the gloves to the public, and even allowing people to buy a glove (or two, if you've got deep pockets).

The gloves are stuffed with sensors: bend sensors in each finger, accelerometers and gyroscopes and lots of other stuff in the wrists. They communicate via Wi-Fi to a computer. All sorts of different movements can trigger different sounds; a clap of the hands, a flick of the wrist, shapes drawn with fingers, they can all make and modify noises. It's also programmable, says Kelly Snook, an 18-year veteran of NASA, PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford, and a member of the Mi.Mu team, who spoke with me on the phone. "You can train certain gestures, like making a fist, to act like triggers or buttons for certain things," she told me.

This isn't a toy; it's not a Nintendo Power Glove, it's not a plastic keytar. It's essentially a high-end synthesizer replacement or supplement designed for live performances. Snook told me that people have been a little shy of the nearly $2,000 price for a single glove on the Kickstarter page, but to think that's expensive is kind of to miss the point of what this device is. It's not for amateurs, and it's not for hobbyists; it's in the same league as, say, a $5,000 Moog synthesizer.

In fact, I asked whether the Mi.Mu glove is designed for anyone besides Imogen Heap. "She's not just involved," Snook says, "she's the spearhead. She's actually the designer, the instigator, the funder, and one of the engineers." That informed the project's development from the start, but the Kickstarter is the team's effort to make the technology available to everyone and not just Heap. That's what's changed since the project was demonstrated back in 2011: it's no longer a custom-designed bit of equipment for an artist. It's now, hopefully, open to everyone, assuming it secures as much funding as it needs on Kickstarter.*

The next steps for the gloves look promising, too; that blue glove you see in the photos above is referred to in-house as the "mega-glove." It's made of "some very fancy fabrics," Snook says, including conductive thread and sensors woven right into the material, which keep the gloves flexible and comfortable. But for future iterations, says Snook, "mainly what we're concerned about now is doing it cheaply," while still maintaining the level of control that a custom-designed piece of equipment for one artist can have.

*An earlier version of this article was unclear in its description of what has changed in this project over time.

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