Used to be, when you wanted to make music with your hands and feel like a wizard, you’d rock out on a theremin. These days, Leon Theremin’s namesake instrument sounds a little dated, at least compared to what a group of Cornell University students have created.
Brainchild of engineering student Ray Li, the “Aura” is a wearable, electronic musical instrument. To play it, users wear sensor-equipped gloves that track the position and orientation of one’s hands in a magnetic field. Hand positions are converted into MIDI signals, the universal language for electronic instruments, then fed into a synthesizer.
To control pitch, musicians raise or lower their hands, while spreading them apart increases the volume. Closing one’s fingers muffles the sound, while twisting them adds distortion. And since different hand positions could be assigned to trigger various sounds in a deep MIDI catalog, there’s a lot of potential to create bold compositions, as Li demonstrates in this video.
“The goal was to create the most intuitive instrument,” Li said in a university press release. “We’re trying to capture those intuitive gestures and make music.”
Li and his colleagues are working on SoundSpace, the next phase of the project. This will allow musicians to control recorded instrument sounds and add percussion via body movements. A public performance of the Aura and SoundSpace is on tap next month, so if you’re in Ithaca on March 26, stop by Cornell’s Barnes Hall Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. and check it out.
Credit: Ryan Larkin