UI Genius? A Synthesizer With A Squishy Keyboard

Seaboard is a crazy, squishy synthesizer. But what if it hides the future of the QWERTY keyboard?

I played trombone back in the day. I found the instrument intriguing because it was built on a gradient. Rather than pressing a series of valves to produce a particular note, you had to feel and hear where the music resided on the slide. And the better I learned to play, the more I realized the continuum of notes at my disposal.


The Seaboard is a synthesizer with spongy grey keys, but it reminds me more of a trombone (or maybe an electric guitar) than a piano because it’s actually a pressure-sensitive system in which notes can blend seamlessly with one another. So you can pull off a glissando with the swipe, or you can add vibrato by wiggling a finger. Watch the embedded clip, and you’ll see what I mean. The digital rules just feel so flexible.

As a piano replacement, it’s fairly exciting. (Pre-orders for the first, limited edition are live now for an unnamed price.) But as the BBC’s Tom Chatfield points out, the Seaboard isn’t just a fun idea in music, it’s a powerful idea in user interface. Because despite living in the future, most of our interactions are striking a QWERTY or a touch screen–both of which come with inherent limitations.

… The very idea of everyday computer interaction via such a tool may seem outlandish. Yet, even as it currently exists, the rubberised interface can be remoulded to fit almost any size or shape. Why shouldn’t we seek to expand the vocabulary of our interfaces in this way?

The current answer is as much prejudice and momentum than reason. Nobody, I’m sure, wants simply to type onto a spongy keyboard. But sensitivity to depth, pressure, vibration and texture might transform how we relate to countless complex tasks, ranging from games and simulations to graphical design and multi-dimensional data. How much more sophistication could be achieved via ‘soft’ mouse buttons–and how much more intuitive feedback received? How much more effortless might it be to select, refine and manipulate objects onscreen not by tapping buttons, but by sinking one hand into a single, subtly responsive surface?

Chatfield is right. The Seaboard’s core technology can be resized and reshaped. And it offers a level of truly tactile interface that we’ve been missing in the Siris, the Kinects and, of course, the QWERTY keyboards. Imagine if the Seaboard replaced your laptop keys and trackpad. You could sink your hands into your computer to type, swipe, and scroll. You could play any number of instruments as easily as sending an email. And you could even squeeze, wiggle, and generally augment content. Your inputs could live in all those murky spaces between the notes at last.

Or to stack on yet another metaphor, right now, our hands are resting on the table. To really make some magic, we need to get them into the dough.

See more here.

[Hat tip: BBC]

About the author

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