A Gadget That Translates Any Object Into A Sound Wave

The machine, by Denis Paul, scans an object’s contours and translates them into a tune.

What does a cardboard box sound like? What about a ceramic clown head?


These are the sorts of things Dennis Paul asked himself, before he built An Instrument for the Sonification of Everyday Things. The machine itself is basically a large spit, rotating any object imaginable over a very precise laser rangefinder. This rangefinder outputs depth/texture data to an oscillator, which reinterprets the shape as sound.

“Essentially the inspiration for this piece was to offer a different perspective on banal and mundane objects by translating our perception of them; a recurring topic in media-related art and design, I believe,” Paul tells Co.Design. “The fact that it actually turned out to be a ‘playable’ musical instrument, was a pleasant surprise.”

It started as a statement, or a challenge to look at objects around us in a different light. (And that experiment succeeded, if you consider the public’s reaction.) “One funny comment on a blog suggested to rotate a ‘rotisserie chicken.’ Just imagine five musicians on stage, jamming with a dead chicken,” he writes. “Now that is weird. Being a vegetarian, I would never spin dead animals, though.”

But what ultimately made this pile of technology into a somewhat predictably interactive musical instrument was a combination of Paul’s researcher nature and his self-admitted tendency to live up to “German clichés.” In An Instrument…, every design hypothesis is engineered with precision, right down to the stepper-motor that rotates the object itself. This motor can be programmed to spin at exact speeds, like 30 RPM (rounds per minute) which naturally maps to 120 BPM (beats per minute), and it’s this precision that gives what could be a one-off art project functional legs as a viable musical machine.

That sound is so precise and predictable, in fact, that Paul is rarely surprised by the sound of any object. And that’s a bit ironic, as the machine’s core sound characteristic is “intentionally very, very raw.” Paul has of course debated deploying other tonal qualities. Since he’s ultimately just working with depth data, that data could theoretically be mapped to any audio quality that you could imagine via software–a trumpet or a car horn or shattering glass. Paul could make his instrument sound like anything.

“But I think I won’t,” he tells us. “For now I like the edgy blurpyness of it. Sometimes it sounds as if it is trying to speak in a weird ‘new aesthetic’ way.”


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.