Wearable Mi.Mu gloves: The next big breakthrough in music?

Imogen Heap and a team of engineers and artists seek to put musical innovation, in the palm of your hand, literally.

 Image: Fiona Garden

The world of music and tech can be pretty magical. Consider accessing countless sounds and samples with a few buttons. But for Grammy-winning electronic artist Imogen Heap, that's not enough.

"What's lacking when you're working with software instruments, is the feedback," she said.

This is one piece of the thinking behind Heap's four-year-long quest to build the Mi.Mu gloves. "If you're interacting with a piano, then you expect it to play like piano; you expect the sound to come back to you, and feel the ivory or the plastic on your fingers," she said.

Recently launched as a Kickstarter project, Mi.Mu are data gloves compatable with MIDI and OSC that control everything from pitch to reverb through a combination of unique gestures by the wearer. The campaign goal is $332,100. So far, with a month to go until the May 3 cut off, nearly 200 backers have pledged $59,699.96.

While the idea of data gloves is not new, Mi.Mu team member Dr. Kelly Snook, said that the gloves differ from ones previously created in three main ways. First, she said the hardware itself is a way of interacting with the music through the placement of the sensors, and feedback - things like LED lights and buzzers.

"All of these things have been really specifically created for music making, and not only for music making, but augmenting the ability to play other instruments at the same time," Snook said. That means that the gloves won't get in the way if Heap wants to use handclaps, or play the piano.

Mi.Mu also differs in the way in which the data is received from the gloves and turned into gestural information. The algorithms that are onboard the sensors are advanced and specific to the project. "The algorithms will take all of the acceleration information and say 'Oh that's a drum gesture,'" she said.

Finally, the gloves will come with software that will help the user map his complex gestures to music, lights, or other visuals.

"It's a big plus to have a tiny little suitcase with just a pair of gloves and a laptop." Kelly Snook
"It's very elaborate, and it's hard to convey without writing a book, just how many details there are in the design of the system that go beyond your typical one-to-one mapping of one gesture to one sound," Snook said. The gloves also work with an infrared camera sensor used to control the music based on where the performer is on the stage. So, if Heap moves stage right, she might be moving into an area programmed to have a choir effect. Moving toward the back of the stage might trigger more effects than moving closer to the audience.

Another motivation for creating the gloves is cutting down on bulk. "It's very expensive, it's very time consuming, it's very heavy, and especially if you're an independent musician - you're not like Imogen - and you're trying to go to a gig and you've got a huge keyboard, and you've got an amp, and whatever else. It's a big plus to have a tiny little suitcase with just a pair of gloves and a laptop," Snook said.

The next electric guitar

The Mi.Mu team has sizable ambition for the gloves. While Snook said that the technical definition dictates that the gloves are controllers and not an instrument, the team considers them an instrument in terms of virtuosity, potential for virtuosity, and richness of control.

More broadly, Snook said that they're not just constructing gloves, but catalyzing a movement.

"We want there really to be a shift in music-making that's analogous to when the piano was invented, or when the electric guitar was made accessible," she said.

Accessibility will spread in increments. A group of 10 collaborators will receive the gloves by August 2014. In December, Mi.MU will go out to the Kickstarter pledgers. The gloves team is also adding smaller level of contributions where pledgers can purchase pieces of the gloves for their own use, or even purchase a spot in a workshop to actually put the gloves together with the team. In these ways, Heap and co. are hoping to learn from contributors' experience with the gloves.

"Probably one of the biggest parts of this process, is engaging the community, getting their input, having them try stuff out, breaking it, understanding how it breaks," Snook said.

All this leads to eventually making the glove software open source. Snook said by that time, the software will be robust enough to handle hacks and modifications. Open source software is also part of the plan to cultivate a community behind the gloves. Heap said they plan to host a two-hour live stream session for newly-minted glover owners.

The Mi.Mu team participated in a Reddit AMA at the end of March. Many asked about support after receiving the gloves. They were assured they'd have all the guidance they need. "Our vibe is really to lead and enable and encourage a new community of people, musicians and artists and whoever else wants to have them for their own use," Snook said.

Imogen Heap shows off the technology that powers her Mi.Mu gloves.
 Image: Dezeen Studio

Whoever else

One of those artists is Adam Blake, assistant choreographer for the new Disney on Ice show and longtime Imogen Heap fan. When he came across Heap's 2012 Wired Talk, he was fascinated. "I was so enthralled by it because it was as if she were the music." So when Mi.Mu's Kickstarter came online, Blake didn't have to think much about what he was going to do.

"I'm not made of money, but it's something that I believe in so much that I can't pass it up," he said. Blake plans to use his tax return to purchase one glove.

Initially, Blake will use his glove for creative projects before he takes on anything of a professional nature, but he's already thinking of ways to use it for videos, for example. On the rink, he imagines a performer being able to hold one long note while skating and the sound traveling with the skater. He's excited about moments where dancer becomes musician and musician becomes dancer.

As far as the more technical aspects of the Mi.Mu gloves, Blake said he benefits from being surrounded by colleagues in production who are familiar with recording and sound technologies.

"They immediately started schooling me on Logic Pro," he said.

There will be a learning curve for all involved. For Heap, it took a long time before she was able to play through "Me the Machine," a song off her forthcoming album, Sparks, that she wrote with the gloves.

"The first time where it felt like I was actually controlling the complex musical environment, it was absolutely amazing," Heap said, "It felt like a dream come true."

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Erin Carson is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the impact of social media in business and the ways technology is transforming the future of work.

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