What if Lite Brite and a tablet PC had a crazy love child? It might look something like the Yamaha Tenori-On. The basic idea is, you press buttons on a 16×16 LED grid and trigger sounds and visuals; there are collaborative features for playing with your friends Tenori-Ons, and the back of the screen functions as an LED, so instead of a private trippy experience, everyone can see the fun. Tim writes us:

On the strength of the demo videos I want one of these! I first read of its existence [at We Make Money Not Art].
Most of the official info seems to be in Japanese, but there’s a 16MB movie of someone playing with one here:
http://envol.info/iwai.mov, and info on the OS.
I have a lot of respect for designers who can create musical instruments and interfaces which even small children can play with!

I agree — fun stuff! But can we please stop repeating the cliché about new musical instruments, clearly levied at the computer? Designed Toshio Iwai is quoted on WWMNA as saying: “A violin doesn’t work if any of its beautiful shape, sound quality, and usability is missing. However, electronic musical instruments often fail to create this inevitable relation of shape, sound, and usability. My goal with TENORI-ON is to make it the right instrument for the real digital age by rethinking what musical instruments should be.”

I almost agree. But a violin’s usability? You crane it uncomfortably between your chin and your shoulder, bruising your neck, it takes months to make a sound that won’t clear the room and make people beg for mercy, and years to make music. If you never got to see a violin, it would sound just as beautiful. Instrument design is important, but let’s separate the toys from the great instruments: even if violins looked ugly, we’d still fall in love with them for their sound and expressive range. So maybe designers need to reconsider what the criteria are. I think it has a lot less to do with shape, looks, and “usability,” and a lot more to do with sound and music. (Of course, in the meantime, I do still want to play with a Tenori-On.) See also: Music Thing