Friday, January 22, 2016

Design Themes/Idea Board

Discussion in class this week, as well as the readings, had several common themes.  One of the most important, at least for me, is the exploration of the intuitiveness of the interface.  Interface is the keyword here; it's important to point out that I do not mean the interface in our normal usage, as in the total object from handle to USB plug, but the actual transducer to skin contact, the margin where the human meets the machine.  In order for the instrument to have an emotional resonance for the performer attention must be paid to whether or not it has a physical resonance, whether or not it invites or repels the actual touch of the performer.

For whatever reason, when I'm thinking about this level of the interface my gold standard, or at least the traditional instrument my mind defaults to, is the cello.  Never having done much with cello other than sit down with it and try and saw out a couple of sensible tones, I'm still drawn to its performance practice and it's particular characteristics.  To start with, you don't just hold the cello, you fully embrace it with your entire body; arms, legs, even neck and head curl around the instrument in an intimacy usually reserved for objects of our affection in more private settings.  As it vibrates, you don't just hear it, you don't just feel it with your hands; it sings outwards from your core to your extremities.  I find the neck size to be perfectly sized for human hands, not the crowding of the violin or guitar neck, and not the cumbersome lengths of the double bass.  The back of the neck as it rests in the crook of the thumb is smooth and invites movement, and when you let it go it rests against your neck and shoulder awaiting the next passage without any need for further physical engagement.  The right hand is held at a very natural position for the human animal, near it's resting place.  When actively bowing it's a smooth easy motion for shoulder arms and hands.  Even when the cellist is digging in for a harsh attack, the mechanics of the posture work to their advantage; the bow pushes inward and the body pushes outward, creating a compression like mechanic that has a metaphor in the ki-hup of martial artists, a direct physical analog of the audible result.

I, of course, am not going to reinvent the cello.  Little outside my current level of ability and a touch outside the scope of the class.  But thinking about this did change my initial thoughts on the human/machine connection.  At first I was going to go with the ubiquitous smooth plastic of most outboard music gear, sort of the inescapable iAesthetic.  I was going to mix that with a little Jet Age/ Mod/ Star Trek styling and come up with a piece of equipment you'd find sitting on Spock's bedstand.  Here are a few pictures from that aesthetic:

Mechanically, the shape fits right in to the device idea that I'm currently following.  The curves are also very inviting, but something about the shiny plastic declines engagement, it's antiseptic and a little too formal, institutional.  It was intimate in Barbarella, but that's about it.  So I like the shape, but not the material.  This is where thinking about the cello started, and I wondered how people are combining wood and electronics.  It was quite common when I was young, even televisions came wrapped in wood with fine scrollwork and expensive finishes, but that was back when a television was huge, a significant investment, and doubled as a table in your living room.  We haven't seen much of that in the past thirty years, especially as electronics have become cheaper, smaller and  disposable.  Well, it turns out that aesthetic is returning; perhaps as people are realizing a new form of intimacy with their devices they want a more comfortable material to hold, and to hold against their bodies and to have in their homes.  Here's some things I found:

For me, the wood definitely invites touch, and it's handsome to boot.  I think I'll use a metal armature for the structure of the device, but find some way to work wood into the touchable surfaces of the interface, similar to the last picture which is a form of computer mouse you hold in your hand.

Another design aspect I have to mention is the influence of sculpture Kenneth Snelson and architect Buckminster Fuller and their idea of the tensigrity.  Tensigrity is the name that Fuller came up with for Snelson's sculptures, it is a combination of Tension and Integrity, and has the poetic description of 'Islands of Compression in a Sea of Tension'.  Tensigrity follows Fuller's earlier work on the concept of the Dymaxion system, Dymaxion being another Fullerism that means Dynamic Maximum Tension.  Fuller first found fame in his Dymaxion Car and Dymaxion House (of which the only remaining one now resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI)  Fuller went on to invent the geodesic dome and spent the remainder of his life evangelizing on the idea that the triangle was the fundamental geometry of the universe and how much he hated Pi.  After his death, a carbon molecule was created based on his principles and named after him, the Fullerene.  It is the basic component of carbon nanotubes, themselves a key component in nano-manufacturing.  Here's some pictures of Snelson and Bucky influenced stuff:

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