Tangible Sound A Table of Light, Playing Music of the Future

Scientists in Barcelona have created a new musical instrument that will produce remarkable sounds, even for an untrained novice. But the 'Reactable' is more than a digital synthesizer. It might also point to a new way of using computers.


Rarely have men been seen playing with blocks with such devout intensity. Four stand around a circular table, placing colorful disks and cubes onto the surface, occasionally moving, rotating or plucking them off again.

Each of these seemingly minor changes produces an effect -- noise ranging from gurgles, taps or booming to a loud drumbeat. When the objects on the table are moved a new and unexpected sound results. Suddenly there's a buzzing, followed by a heavy stomping bass. The sky-blue glow of the tabletop reflects in the faces of these peculiar musicians.

The audience might be witnessing an advanced form of witchcraft. But they're hearing a musical instrument unlike anything they have ever heard or seen.

The disks on the table produce the sound. Each has its own magic. Some disks emit sounds of various timbres when they make contact with the table; others reshape these sounds when moved close to the first disks. There are "scrambler" disks, and flicker cubes, and rhythm dice. Some pieces produce a rougher or choppier sound. The possibilities for music are endless.

The magic table was created at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, where a group of young music musicologists have spent years searching for a completely different type of instrument. "It was supposed to be capable of doing anything we wanted it to," says Martin Kaltenbrunner, one of the designers, "and yet be extremely easy to play."

Their efforts have produced a powerful synthesizer that emits any conceivable sound, but doesn't look like a synthesizer at all. There are no knobs or cables, no keyboard and no intimidating technological interface. In fact it seems to consist of nothing more than a blue, luminous table and a pile of translucent pieces, called tangibles.

The table is called a "Reactable." It's been displayed at exhibits and conferences throughout Europe. It was recently awarded the Golden Nica prize at the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria. Many museums already have a Reactable in their collections, and the device has been so successful that its creators now plan to offer it to the public.

Malleable Sound

Anyone can play a Reactable. Using the tangibles, even the tone-deaf and the unmusical and and the hard of hearing can be sorcerers. Producing an impressive wobbling, clattering and hissing is like working with an acoustic lump of clay.

The table is both simple and profound. There now are about 90 different tangibles, which can be altered in different ways and linked at random. By rotating the disks like knobs on a radio, a player can change the volume, pitch and behavior of the sounds. Some tangibles introduce ready-made recordings, like a driving drum beat or a rhythm guitar.

The musicians generally begin with an empty table. They put together an instrument one building block at a time. This can quickly produce structures of dizzying complexity. An instrument using one or two dozen tangibles is so complex that it becomes almost impossible to keep track of the interactions. A player presides over the process, but he must also let the sound modules take on a life of their own.

How the graphic synthesizer works

How the graphic synthesizer works

For those who prefer to create conventional melodies, a simple keyboard is more suitable -- creating melodies with notes is not the Reactable's strength. The table is for people who like to make new discoveries. The Icelandic pop singer Björk one along on her most recent tour, for one of her band members. She's now ordered a second table, says Martin Kaltenbrunner. "She wants to learn to play it herself."

The tabletop consists of a pane of ordinary frosted glass, which conceals a video camera. Computer-readable symbols are printed on the bottoms of the tangibles for the camera to recognize. The symbols command the sound. The musicians can always see how their tangibles interact, because animated luminous trails reveal the connections. A pulse generator that adds a beat to the sound produced by another tangible, for example, also displays visible light impulses to the tangible on the tabletop. This is achieved by a projector, which is installed under the glass.

It's possible to build a homemade magic table at a fraction of the Reactable's cost. All it takes, in principle, is an ordinary web camera and an inexpensive projector from an electronics store. Cardboard boxes with the symbols printed on them can be used as tangibles. Templates are available on the Internet (mtg.upf.edu/reactable), as is the free software needed to locate and recognize the symbols.

Software, Not Hardware

The machine's creators see the software as their real achievement. The table is just an early sample of use. The underlying purpose is not to create music; the Reactable is really a new way of operating computers. A person listening to the radio could place two circular disks on a table, one to control the volume and the other to choose stations. The conventional route -- a mouse and keyboard -- is often not very intuitive. Kaltenbrunner believes many things are easier to learn if they involve picking úp ojbects.

Microsoft sells a computer table that reacts to objects and finger movements like the Reactable. The user can move digital photos around on the table, and all it takes to zoom in on the images is to pull them apart with two fingers, as on the Apple iPhone. When the user places a specially encoded wine glass on the table, information about the wine appears. So far these computer tables are used almost exclusively by hotels and electronics stores. Whether the technology will advance toward ordinary home use is still uncertain, and some experts have their doubts.

In music, though, the advantages of tactile data manipulation are clear. A digital synthesizer -- if nothing else -- is finally ready for concert use. Electronic manipulation of music has been growing for years, but it's unattractive in a live concert to watch musicians on stage pull out their laptops and start typing away like office workers.

But the Reactable is different. In concert the colorful surface of the table can be projected onto a screen, so the audience can watch hands dance across the luminous surface.

The table is still heavy and cloddish, since the camera and projector require a fair amount of space. But the bulky housing could soon be unnecessary. The Japanese electronics company Sharp has developed a monitor that serves as a scanner. Only a small version currently exists, for mobile telephones, but it lets a user hold a business card up to the display to enter all its information. The same principle could be applied to a Reactable. The musicians would then simply push their disks around on a flat screen.

Nothing is too small for the scientists in Barcelona. The goal of their entrepreneurial Music Technology Group is to create a pocket-sized instrument. Apple's iPhone, for example, could easily be converted to a rattle. "The necessary movement sensors are already built in," says Kaltenbrunner. All that's needed is a program to let the user repurpose the iPhone into a percussion instrument. He could then select from a range of virtual instruments made of metal or wood.

The group has already made a few commercial inroads. It recently started to sell its RjDj program for a few dollars in the iPhone App Store. The program generates electronic music on the phone that constantly reacts to the listener's surroundings. It can be adjusted to match a pattern of steps, or it can distort or constrict a voice in real time while somebody sings into the mic. There's even a function to incorporate modified ambient sound -- the sound of a car screeching around a corner, a neighbor's growling Doberman -- into a piece of music.

Which means the music of the future could turn even a walk to the local bakery into a psychedelic trip.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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