PocoPoco is a delightful, fanciful device that takes music control into the realm of kinetic sculpture. Normally, the relationship of music controller is primarily about the operator making physical actions. With PocoPoco, the hardware itself moves. The essential musical structure is familiar: it’s the grid of light-up buttons, with strong similarity to the ongoing interaction design of Toshio Iwai in the 90s and (Tenori-On) past decade. Even aesthetically, there are similarities – perhaps not coincidentally as this team is also Japan-based.

But adding in the element of solenoid-powered cylinders popping out of the grid adds a major element of surprise. There is also an unmistakable similarity to a certain arcade game, Whac-A-Mole.

Whac-A-Mole might be ideal inspiration. The game itself is based on rhythm and time, and the ability (or inability) of the brain to deal with multiple simultaneous stimuli, much in the same way our brain has to track across lines of counterpoint in music. And Whac-A-Mole’s history might be instructive, too: it’s the creation of Creative Engineering, the pioneering kinetic and animatronic company behind Showbiz Pizza and Chuck E. Cheese. (Achievement unlocked: CDM legitimately references Chuck E. Cheese twice in one week.) Founder and design Aaron Fechter’s animatronic shows might not seem a likely source for futuristic interaction design and music, but with the computer added to the equation, simple mechanical effects take on an entirely new significance.

Ironically, if you prove really good at crushing cute, furry animals by hitting them in the head with a large mallet, you’re rewarded with a cute, furry animal to take home. I’m not entirely sure what message this game is sending, but this kid may be thinking about when she gets to start bludgeoning that pink monkey. Photo (CC-BY) edenpictures / New York Songlines.

But back to the PocoPoco. As a musical instrument, I’m dubious. It’s fundamentally another a four-by-four step sequencer, so it’s not as though it actually solves a problem. (Well, if you’ve ever wished your step sequencer were also a game of Whac-a-Mole, it’s the invention you’ve been waiting for.) But even if it’s not actually useful, it’s no less intriguing. It could be seen as a tantalizing reminder that adding motion to interfaces could produce musical devices that double as moving sculptures, and performance tools that move rather than sit around waiting for you.

The timing seems right, too, as touch interfaces like the iPad make physical interaction fairly abstract (running your finger on undifferentiated glass), or gestural interfaces take away any touch at all (Kinect).

There’s a great interview at DJ Tech Tools. That’s fitting, as DJTT has popularized their own MIDI Fighter hardware, which accentuates the tactile feel of playing grids by swapping arcade buttons as the input, and likewise has a strong connection as this does to games and arcades. A must-read:

PocoPoco – The Motorized Controller [Interview, DJ TechTools]

Takaharu Kanai, one of the designers from the IDEAA Lab team at Tokyo Metropolitan University, has some good things to say.

Seen other kinetic hardware, or worked on a design of your own? We’d love to see it.

  • I hate to admit that my stereotype of alternative sequencers like this one and the Tenori-On is of highly repetitive, 1-bar-loop music jams. The PocoPoco's physical feedback is pretty cute, though. It'd be cool if the motors had greater control over the height of the buttons, so you can have an instrument that pushes against you while you push back… "force feedback" if you will :p

  • Tim E

    I think, for this type of interface to win, the buttons need to start in a raised state. Allow me to rotate them like knobs, push them like buttons, and force/grab their height as another input…

    Thinking out loud here, but if you could combine the velocity sensitivity of a keyboard with the rotational ability of a knob, you could have a rather interesting interface with x-y capability. 

  • Jonah

    I'm not so sure touch screen or non-resistive gestural interfaces for a sequencer are inherently any more abstract than any other form we currently have available. Not trying to be a semantics cop, and I feel I get your underlying point, but it's an interesting thought road to travel down, I think. 
    I mean, sheet music? And it's odd note shapes? So abstract that you need dedicated self-study or schooling. Let's not even get started on the note names. πŸ™‚ But seriously, why? Most rhythm sequencers have an abstraction layer that favors 4×4 timing, which I find somewhat exclusionary towards other cultures and traditions.
    Some elements of the PocoPoco interface are very smart and handle the abstraction in novel and intuitive ways. They could certainly be adapted to other control mediums. For example the way it handles controlling pitch per note and holding notes is brilliant! 
    Other aspects such as changing the octave and the 4×4 grid I find to be  unfortunate. They both fall prey to the form factor of the device in varying amounts. I wonder if the 4×4 grid was an attempt to target a user accustomed to an MPC style (or whack a mole!) πŸ™‚ interface, an evolution of the tenori-on or leaving the possibilities open for multiple applications. Quite possibly all of these reasons πŸ™‚
    I would have preferred a riff on piano style, maybe something with groups of 5 and of 7 to allow access to common musical scales. Anyway, I'm still very interested in the prospect of using a PocoPoco in tandem with other sequencers.
    Touch and gesture have the potential to allow for less abstract methods sequencing, once they stop slavishly following the old ways of abstraction. Before my time, but didn't word processing programs originally only let you move back one letter at a time like a typewriter rather than let you navigate through time and space as we can now?
    On a different note, how soon until we have biofeedback in our touchscreens and open air gesture controllers? Those wireless charging pads and wireless electricity are just a hop,skip and jump away from devices sending signals fooling our brains into thinking that what we are touching has volume, texture and resistance. A somewhat (or very?) unnerving, but ultimately exciting prospect.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Jonah: Yes, given that I often make that very argument, I'm contradicting myself. πŸ˜‰

    I suppose "abstract" is not at all what I mean, so much as "non-kinetic" and "less tactile." Have to think about my own semantics.