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MIT’s Experimental Keyboard Is Unlike Any Instrument You’ve Seen (Or Heard)

In a new project from MIT Media Lab, the FabricKeyboard is an instrument you play by pressing, twisting, pulling and stretching.

Instruments, by and large, are rigid, inflexible things—consistent in form but infinitely variable in the music that they can produce. But what if instruments were malleable? What if you could make music by pulling and stretching and twisting an instrument, regardless of how it is traditionally played?

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With a new project out of MIT Media Lab’s Responsive Environments lab, you can. Called FabricKeyboard, the instrument is made from multi-layer textile sensors that have been sewn in the pattern of keyboard keys. The e-fabric responds to touch, pressure, stretch, proximity, and electric field. You can play the keys like one would a normal keyboard, or you can manipulate the sounds by manipulating the fabric itself—by pressing, pulling, twisting, and even by waving your hands above the material. Moving your hand toward and away from the keyboard, for example, can produce an undulating effect while stretching the material gives a result similar to a Wah-Wah Pedal on electric guitar.

The way that researchers Irmandy Wicaksono and Joseph A. Paradiso created the FabricKeyboard will sound familiar to anyone following the latest wave of intelligent textiles. Google’s Project Jacquard, involves weaving touch controls into threads of fabric to create smart garments like the Levi’s commuter jacket, which acts as an interface for your phone.

Similarly, FabricKeyboard consists of conductive fabric on the outermost layer of each key, which detects proximity and touch. The layer below consists of a fabric pressure sensor embedded between two non-conductive fabrics. Below the base fabric are fabric stretch sensors that are connected to interior circuitry with conductive thread. Other fabric interfaces such as ribbon controllers and trackpads were also built as part of the project, which can be snapped into the main keyboard controller.

[Photo: Irmandy Wicaksono/MIT Media Lab]
Although it borrows from new e-textile materials and techniques, there are also precedents for the FabricKeyboard in the realm of experimental musical instruments.  In 1997, two researchers from MIT’s Affective Computing Research Group created the Musical Jacket that has conductive thread embroidered into a keypad above the left jacket pocket, which was connected to MIDI synthesizer and speaker circuits. And in 2000, three Media Lab researchers invented the Embroidered Musical Balls by sewing in conductive electrodes that act as pressure sensors for modulating sound.

As a paper published on the FabricKeyboard points out, capacitive sensing has been a part of the history of electronic keyboards for even longer. In the mid-1960s, the modular synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla used capacitive touchpads as input devices in the synthesizers he invented. In the 1970s, Moog designed a Multiply-Touch Sensitive Keyboard that incorporated a new layer of sensors on the surface of the keys that could detect gesture as well as pressure.

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FabricKeyboard builds on that legacy by creating a keyboard with stretchable fabric—making the medium as easy to manipulate and distort as the sound. And the MIT researchers plan on expanding the project further—by adding more keys, incorporating haptic feedback and working with musicians to experiment with the different sounds that it can create.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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