Technology takes musicmaking to the air

Nikki Wee

Rock star wannabes and air guitar enthusiasts can finally create their own music solos without ever having to pick up or know how to use a guitar.

Virtual instruments are increasing in popularity as more people are being introduced to the concept, said J. Anthony Allen, a University Ph.D. music student and electronic music instructor.

Allen said he is one of a handful of people who have blended music and technology, allowing instruments to be played virtually.

Allen uses the instruments he creates to perform with his musical group, Ballet Me’chanique.

“Electronic music is definitely growing in popularity,” he said. “But to make a performance is fairly unique.”

Allen uses a pair of gloves to play his virtual instruments. He made the special gloves as a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The gloves contain sensors that were created for NASA. The sensors send hand and finger movement information through a wire Allen runs under his clothes, out of his pocket and into a briefcase full of circuitry. Finally, the wires connect to his laptop, where the sound is produced.

Though it might sound like a complicated task, Allen said it is a fairly easy process.

“You would be surprised at how easy it is to build,” he said. “Pretty much anyone could do it.”

Allen said he hopes to see a new kind of virtuoso emerge.

“I would love it if people started playing electronic music more,” he said. “I’d love to see it catch on.”

Rock on

Air guitar enthusiasts now have an interactive program to look forward to.

A team of computer science students at Helsinki University of Technology in Finland created a virtual air guitar program that adds electronic guitar sounds to any passionately played air guitar.

“Anyone can play it,” said Teemu Maki-Patola, a doctoral student at Helsinki University of Technology and one of the three members of the team.

A video camera, a computer hooked up to a set of speakers and a pair of bright orange gloves is all a person needs to sound like a rock star.

Instead of sensors, computer vision software detects hand movements, he said.

The students created a library of sounds based on a pentatonic minor scale in order to create the right sound for their virtual instrument.

“We were lucky to produce the sounds we wanted to,” Maki-Patola said.

The team spent more than eight months working on the air guitar, as well as an air drum and a virtual xylophone set, he said.

Heureka Science Centre in Finland is demonstrating these projects, Maki-Patola said, and people have played them thousands of times.

The team now is looking into expanding into the business world with its newest creation.

“Companies have approached us about working with them,” Maki-Patola said.

Maki-Patola said the team is thinking about creating a game similar to “Dance, Dance Revolution” that people could find at an arcade or buy at a video game store.

This idea came as a result of the popularity of the air guitar concept.

For the past three years, Air Guitar USA has had a national air guitar competition to find the country’s best air guitarist.

Kriston Rucker, co-founder of Air Guitar USA, said air guitar is “growing a lot.”

“I think it’s something everyone does,” Rucker said. “When you listen to guitar music, it’s pretty inevitable. We look at it as our unofficial national pastime.”

In 2006, 15 cities, including Minneapolis, will have regional competitions.

People who go far in the competition will usually practice for hours, choosing the right song, choreographing their performance and selecting the right costume, Rucker said.

But the virtual air guitar isn’t something that people can find at any of these competitions.

“Air guitar isn’t about creating music,” Rucker said. “It’s how you set yourself up to look.”

Music to their ears?

Mechanical engineering junior Jack Petty said that while the concept of a virtual air guitar is interesting, it defeats the actual meaning of an air guitar.

“In a sense, all air guitar is, is you not being able to play an instrument or wanting to be in a band,” Petty said. “Now that music’s coming out, it kind of defeats the purpose.”

Aerospace engineering sophomore Jeromie Hamann said air guitar is a way for people to let loose.

“Air guitar is kind of a way for those of us who can’t really play an instrument to have a good time,” Hamann said.

But Hamann, who actually plays the guitar, said a virtual instrument would have its limits.

With an actual guitar, there are many minute details that are used to personalize how a guitarist sounds, he said.

“You lose a lot of that with a virtual guitar,” Hamann said.

First-year biology student Mallory Voss said she has secretly played an air guitar before.

“I think it’s funny because people make themselves look like fools,” she said.

The idea of an arcade or video game is varied among students.

“There’s definitely a market for it,” Petty said. “You have a whole group of middle school and high school kids that have nothing else to do but play video games. I would definitely give it a whirl.”

While Voss said she would steer clear of playing the air guitar in public, a home version of the game would be something she would consider trying.

However, not all students are excited about the idea of a virtual air guitar game.

Math senior Jamie Johnson said that while he has never really rocked out on an air guitar before, it is an interesting concept. But a video or arcade game that would allow him to do so isn’t something that he said interests him.