Watch: With Cyborg Instruments, Dancers Turn Movement Into Music

Robotic exoskeletons never moved so gracefully.

One is a glowing exoskeleton spine, while another looks like a pair of cyborg butterfly wings. But these aren’t just costumes; they’re wearable, functional art.


In fact, the team of researchers from the IDML (Input Devices and Music Interaction Laboratory) who are responsible for the designs go so far as to call their creations “prosthetic instruments.” The prostheses are a collection of 30 bespoke 3-D printed shapes–a spine, rib cage, and headpiece represent the core designs–crafted without screws, nuts, or bolts, and filled with sensors to detect movements that a computer can translate into sound. When fitted to a dancer’s body, these prostheses allow music and choreography to become one.

“Simply adding sensors to dancers’ bodies is fairly common and did not interest us, so instead we decided to play with the identity of the instruments–are they object or body?” explains project researcher Joseph Malloch. “We didn’t want to ‘sonify’ the dancers’ movements but rather create artifacts that would actually change the dancers’ bodies.”

In other words, these prostheses aren’t just wearable novelties that add preprogrammed acoustics to a plié. They’re complex machinery that demand a level of commitment from the dancer’s own movements to activate. In this sense, the instrument actually augments the dancer’s actions as much as the dancer augments the instrument’s sound.

“This [relationship] brings very different design constraints,” Malloch explains. “Dancers are incredibly good at incorporating new objects into their body image and exploring their potential, but they are used to gesture and movement being ends in themselves rather than means to create music.”

In turn, the research team designed the instruments to be removable during the performance itself, which emboldens stylistic performance shifts without limiting a dancer’s core creativity or flexibility on stage. That seemingly small detail is a testament to how well designed these prostheses must be to slip on and off so easily, yet simultaneously fit so ergonomically that dancers can leap, spin, and roll on the floor with some abandon.

And, because they’re 3-D printable and fitted with relatively low-cost electronics, the team doesn’t feel pressure to prove their instruments worthy of mass adoption. Or as Malloch puts it:


“It is no longer necessary for a new interface to ‘catch-on’ commercially, since you can just build it yourself!”

See more here.

[Hat tip: Creators Project]


About the author

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