Instrumented Bodies by Joseph Malloch and Ian Hattwick

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Researchers in Canada have designed a family of prosthetic musical instruments, including an external spine and a touch-sensitive rib cage, that create music in response to body gestures. Joseph Malloch and Ian Hattwick, two PhD researchers at McGill University’s Input Devices and Music Interaction Lab (IDMIL), worked with a team of dancers, musicians, composers and choreographers to develop wearable digital instruments for a live music and dance performance, called Les Gestes. The instruments developed are a bending spine extension, a curved rib cage that fits around the waist and a visor headset with touch and motion sensors.Each instrument can be played in a traditional hand-held way, but can also be attached to the body, freeing a dancer to twist, spin and move to create sound. All three are lit from within using LEDs. “The goal of the project was to develop instruments that are visually striking, utilise advanced sensing technologies, and are rugged enough for extensive use in performance,” explained Malloch and Hattwick. The researchers said that they wanted to create objects that are beautiful, functional and believable as instruments. “We wanted to move away from something that looked made by a person, because then it becomes less believable as a mysterious extension to the body,” Hattwick told Dezeen. “The interesting thing would be either that it looks organic or that it was made by some sort of imaginary futuristic machine. Or somewhere in between,” he added. The Rib and Visor are constructed from layers of laser-cut transparent acrylic and polycarbonate. “One of the layers uses a transparent conductive plastic film, patterned with the laser cutter to form touch-sensitive pads,” said Hattwick. The pads are connected to electronics via a thin wire that runs through the acrylic. Touch and motion sensors pick up body movements and radio transmitters are used to transmit the data to a computer that translates it into sound.
The Spine is made from laser-cut transparent acrylic vertebrae, threaded onto a transparent PVC hose in a truss-like structure. A thin and flexible length of PETG plastic slides through the vertebrae, allowing the entire structure to bend and twist. The rod is fixed at both ends of the instrument using custom-made 3D-printed components.“We used 3D printing for a variety of purposes,” Hattwick told Dezeen. “One of the primary uses was for solving mechanical problems. All of the instruments use a custom-designed 3D-printed mounting system, allowing the dancers to smoothly slot the instruments into their costumes.”

Speaking about the future of wearable technology, Hattwick told Dezeen: “Technological devices should be made to accommodate the human body, not the other way around.”

“Just as we’ve seen an explosion of DIY musical instruments and interactive art based on open-source electronics, perhaps we will see an explosion of DIY mechanical devices which create new ideas of how we use our body to interact with technology.”

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