Published: July 20, 2015

Workshop group members working together What happens if you provide specially-equipped electronic kits to a handful of small groups in a workshop and let them loose to design and build motorized percussion instruments?

This was exactly what ATLAS PhD students Abhishek Narula, Hyunjoo Oh and Jiffer Harriman did at this year’s New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the results were inspiring. “The participants’ creative exploration was amazing. Building from the kits, they designed their own instruments in incredible ways. They really enjoyed the handcrafting and childlike play,” Oh said.

After being given some brief instructions, participants used the remainder of the three-hour session to whimsically incorporate a variety of common objects, such as paper cups, beads, cardboard, and string, into a motorized percussive creation. Motion and timing were controlled and programmed using preassembled circuit boards, complete with a microprocessor, inputs, outputs and control knobs, that Narula designed.

“The idea of the circuit board was to make it quick and easy to engage with the movement without worrying about building circuits and writing software,” said Harriman.

Three mechanisms designed by Hyunjoo Oh and made from laser cut cardboard or paper produced repetitive movements when attached to electric motors. Participants positioned the mechanisms to strike, scrape, touch, spin or shake, making a wide variety of rhythmic sounds.

Two men working together on their projectHarriman explained, “Because the gears were made of cardboard or paper, it created a sense of play. No one took their creations too seriously. It made it easy to throw away an idea that’s not working and try again—an attitude that fosters creativity.”

Narula described the workshop as a way to explore how bringing art and technology together in a creative application helps people engage with one another, play, have fun, be creative and collaborate.

While in Louisiana, the team also exposed groups of children to the kits during a visit to a Baton Rouge library. After seeing the excitement around the kits, Narula said the team is now looking at forging some longer term plans: “Ultimately, we’d like to see these made available to children’s museums, classrooms, parents and teachers,” he said.

In the meantime, they will be presenting the workshop at CU-Boulder’s ATLAS Institute over the summer and during the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) in Vancouver, August 14 – 19.