Have you ever tried one of those projected keyboards? You know, the ones that allow you to type or play a piano right on a table? They’re neat in theory but horrible in practice, because who wants to bang their fingers against a static image laid on a lifeless chunk of wood all day?
Contact, by UCL student Felix Faire, is the projected interface reimagined. It can transform any surface into not just a touch-sensitive table but an addictive digital instrument that your senses will beckon you to play.
“The projected keyboards are bizarre to me, as they remove every tactile or tangible quality of the piano, and then try to keep the same format, so the whole thing just collapses into a forgettable experience,” Faire tells Co.Design. “For Contact, everything was built around the the act of hitting, tapping, beating, or scratching a physical object, then everything else just sort of grew from there.”
The instrument is essentially a grid with one long string in the middle. Tap anywhere on the grid, or pluck that string, to play a note. (A pair of microphones embedded in the table tracks where and how you are tapping.) Gesture with a few fingers in the air to change the note you’d like to play. (A Leap Motion infrared tracker measures this part.) And a foot pedal allows the user to initiate loops.
This technical wizardry alone could actually make for a pretty dull experience, but Faire wanted each interaction to feel gratifying. So he added virtual physics and a dose of explosive eye candy. Every time you touch the table, its grid reacts as if your finger is sinking into it. When you pull the string, it not only bounces like you’d expect a string to but digital shards burst at your touch, and that string actually visualizes the waveform you’re playing as well.
In other words, the visualization is part real musical information and part tactile fun. Some might see the extra razzle dazzle as superfluous, but Faire wants to create a synesthetic experience, playing off of the natural human tendency of the brain to overlap sensual experience. His work is highly reminiscent of projects by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, whose digitally psychedelic games like Rez, Lumines, and Every Extend Extra lull you into an experience that’s half visual and half audial, putting the user in some sensory grey area between artistic creation and consumption. Most of us aren’t truly synesthetic, seeing sounds as colors or shapes or even tastes, but interfaces like Faire’s and Mizuchi’s allow us to feel as if we are.
Into the future, Faire hopes to incorporate machine learning into Contact to make it more plug-and-play compatible in various environments by leveraging smart algorithms to map new tables and complex surfaces with ease, rather than requiring laborious manual setup for every new surface, as it does now. And whether or not Contact itself becomes a mass-produced, play-anywhere digital instrument, it’s not hard to imagine systems like it gaining popularity with performers of all sorts. Contact is essentially an instrument with a built-in laser light show.