UF Researchers Create A Suit That Makes The Wearer A Living Keyboard
GAINESVILLE — A lone dancer clad in a form-fitting, white suit stands in the center of a dark, silent stage. With his face concealed by a mesh mask and wires protruding from the material, he resembles a robot in a science fiction film.
The lights come up, the dancer moves and his motions and gestures create music. As the melody expands, other dancers on stage move in synch with the music. The lead dancer conducts not only the sounds but the dancers as well.
The suit formally referred to as the MIDI Movement Module, or M3 contains electronic sensors that transform the dancer into a living electronic keyboard. The suit is being developed by a trio of University of Florida researchers professors of music, theater and engineering. The futuristic look of the suit is not coincidental, as it was originally developed for a ballet based on Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel Ender’s Game.
While it doesn’t actually make any music, the M3 sends information via radio signals to computers that do, says electrical engineering Professor Mike Lynch.
“The suit itself produces control signals,” Lynch said. “The program on the receiving computer transforms those control signals into what we want them to be.”
UF Assistant Music Professor James Sain said the suit is the next step in the evolution of the computer-based music. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface devices that tell computers how to create different sounds.
“We were starting to get students interested in these alternative MIDI controllers,” Sain said. “We started to think it would be neat to have something that allowed the dancer to create, control and work within the sound environment.
“The dancer would be the instrument, the conductor, the composer and the performer all in one,” he said.
Watching the dancer put on the suit is reminiscent of seeing an astronaut don a spacesuit before liftoff. Numerous sensors are zipped into parts of the suit covering the dancers arms and legs. The sensors read the amount of bend at the elbow or knee. Bending the right arm controls pitch; the left leg controls volume. Buttons in the suit and gloves allow the dancer to play pre-recorded sequences or select a different instrument.’
“The trick is taking the sensors from the dancer and being able to then translate that into something that’s useful,” Sain said. “A computer program enables us to take those joint positions and trigger buttons and map those to musically significant parameters.”
So far, the suit has been used to produce music that sounds like a cross between New Age and Modern Jazz. But its creators say the techniques can just as easily be turned to the classics.
“The idea is to be where the dancer can take a set score and can conduct that score in real time,” Sain said. “So if they need a little more time to do a specific gesture or perform a specific movement they can do that.”
“Imagine the freedom the dancer has,” he said. “He could be doing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake’ and be conducting the orchestra from his movement with complete control over the slowing down and speeding up of the piece or the specific tempo of the piece.”
Sain pointed out that recorded music rather than a live orchestra often accompanies performances, especially in small communities. Using the music suit, the spontaneity of a live performance can be added to the experience.
To date, only a few performances with the music suit have been presented locally and during a conference in Utrech, Holland. The researchers Sain, Lynch and theater Associate Professor Richard Rose, the dancer of the group have been paying expenses out of their own pockets for past the four years, and they need funding to continue the suit’s development.
“We’re trying to give the suit the full gamut of musical capabilities,” Sain said. “That’s how we’d like to see it go forward in its next incarnation.”
- Edward Hunter