Electric Zoo - The Glitch Mob

The Lemur, seen here onstage with The Glitch Mob, rides off into the sunset.

It’s not so often that I write obituaries for hardware, but this time, it seems appropriate. JazzMutant has announced that its Lemur, the multi-touch hardware controller, is officially at the end of its life.

Their announcement:

Since 2002, JazzMutant has been a acknowledged pioneer in the field of Creative Computing and Multi-touch technology, being the first-ever company to develop and bring to the market a product featuring a multi-touch screen as early as 2005. Since its market launch, the Lemur has been endorsed by a fascinating community of music and video artists. Nine Inch Nails, Richard Devine, Hot Chip, Ritchie Hawtin, Matthew Herbert, M.I.A, Mike Relm, Alva Noto, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Daft Punk, Bjork, … : The list of prestigious and influent artists who have made the Lemur their favorite pet companion on stage would be way too long to be mentioned here. Its visionary concept and groundbreaking technologies allowed the Lemur to win numerous international press awards and was recently elected “Innovation of the decade” by Future Music.

During five years and despite the new fever surrounding touch technologies, the Lemur remained the only Multi-touch device capable to meet the needs of creative people. From now on, this ecosystem is evolving quickly : powerful consumer tablet devices are becoming mainstream, bringing the power of multi-touch to everyone. In the meantime, JazzMutant, renamed Stantum in 2007, has become a technology-centric company and developed partnerships with tier-one industrial partners to speed up this democratization. As a result, the need for a high-end dedicated hardware is doomed to vanish in the near future. This is why Stantum is announcing today that it will close its JazzMutant activity unit and stop selling its legendary Lemur Multi-touch hardware controller at the end of December while the stock lasts! The last batch of Lemurs just came out of the factory. These very last units are now available at a special discounted price from JazzMutant’s webstore and from its authorized distributors and retailers. These very last units are now available with 25% discount! Moreover, the Dexter App and an original Lemur T-shirt will come along for free. Don’t miss this last opportunity and grab the legendary Lemur from authorized retailers while the stock last! The Technical support and after sale service will be handled until December 31, 2011. The jazzmutant website will stay online in order to let the user community access support resources and share their projects.

We would like to thank all the people involved in this fantastic adventure: first of all the user community which exceeded our wildest expectations in creating the most amazing templates; our devoted resellers, who helped us to show the Lemurs all over the world; finallymusic software editors for their support.


None of this is necessarily news. To me, the surprise is that the transition away from a dedicated multi-touch controller to widespread multi-touch took as long as it did. (Well, actually, it isn’t so much of a surprise in retrospect, but perhaps the Lemur made the coming transformation so vivid that I hadn’t thought through just what that transformation would take to come to pass.)

At the end of 2005, writing a review for Keyboard Magazine of the Lemur, I concluded that powerful as touch was, it should be viewed as a complement, not a replacement, for tactile hardware – a tool ideal for certain tasks:

The Lemur is an unusual piece of hardware. Because it rethinks fundamental questions about what music hardware should be, it raises questions we normally take for granted. But it also suggests that conventional hardware interfaces aren’t as arbitrary as one might think.

If anything, I think at the time I wildly underestimated some of the Lemur’s most important contributions:

  • Simple, geometric, high-contrast user interface elements improved legibility and usability.
  • It pointed to physics-driven touch interfaces which still haven’t been fully explored – even by the likes of Apple.
  • It demonstrated how important multiple touch points could be – not just two, or three, but the same number of touch points for which you have fingers.
  • It led adoption of OpenSoundControl (OSC), leading to more intelligently-labeled controls, network-based control schemes (whether Ethernet or WiFi), and higher-resolution data.
  • It showed the usefulness of floating point control precision, particularly in the visual space.

But more importantly, in my Keyboard story I said I felt that the Lemur would ultimately be replaced by computers that had touch, rather than dedicated touch controllers:

There’s no question that multi-touch touchscreens represent the future of computer interfaces, and the Lemur is the biggest leap yet toward that science fiction future. For now, the challenge is that the Lemur’s features lie somewhere between a computer display and music controller, without effectively supplanting either one. The Lemur sacrifices the sensitivity and tactile feedback of physical controls in the name of flexibility, but that payoff is limited by the restrictions of its pre-built interface objects and the difficulty of configuring new layouts and assigning them to software controls.

If the Lemur could be truly fused with the computer display, rather than requiring an entirely independent interface, it would become a must-buy. Until that happens, the Lemur could be a worthy acquisition if you need more flexible control of parameters like timbre and surround sound, or want a programmable interface you can touch, and can afford paying a premium for emerging technology. But for most of us, less-expensive and more musical physical hardware will remain the preferred way of interacting with the virtual worlds of computer sound.

In fact, in one odd sense, the Lemur’s separation of control from sound source has hindered the fusion of sound and interface on devices like the iPad; control surfaces remain arguably more popular than dedicated musical instruments and production tools that take advantage of the new touch paradigm.

mini studio

Lemur’s heir – TouchOSC and iPad, coupled with tactile interfaces – the new combination for music performance. As a replacement for the object in the background, it doesn’t make much sense. But as a replacement for the computer screen and mouse, it’s a no-brainer. Image (CC-BY-SA) Taco Ekkel.

I imagined that the fusion of touch displays with computers was a couple of years off; it was actually closer to six years. It really took the debut of Apple’s iPad this year – some five years after the Lemur’s introduction – for us to see the computer fused with the touch interface. And I think the year of the tablet is more likely to be 2011, as Windows, Linux (MeeGo and Ubuntu), Android, and presumably Chrome tablets all hit the marketplace. (True, we’ve seen computers with touch, but they’ve all made compromises that prevented them from even matching the Lemur, either in sacrificing performance, adding cost, losing multiple touch points and resolution, or some combination.)

Some of the coming models will seem more like conventional computers with touch displays, others more like tablets in the mold of the iPad.

What remains to be seen is whether we’ll see Stantum’s technology – technology derived from the Lemur – in some of those devices. (See my April interview with JazzMutant’s co-founder.) No new information there. Update – it bears saying, based on what I see in comments: we already know that there are a lot of tablets and touch-equipped laptops and specialized devices coming to market in 2011 and beyond. There are more devices, from what I’ve seen, than there are vendors of touch technologies. That makes this a very desirable marketplace, and could explain why JazzMutant are in no hurry to open source their code. It’s a safe bet that Stantum is still making a play for that enormous market, with everything from general consumer electronics to specialized gear for certain industries in the mix (and not just music). I don’t have any new information, but I expect when they’re able to make something public, you’ll know.

As for the Lemur touchscreen, though, it is now committed to computing history. The present is, primarily, the iPad, and the future, from Apple and others, offers multitouch as inexpensively and seamlessly integrated with computing hardware as the trackpad, keyboard, and mouse have been in the past. The knob, the piano keyboard, strings and frets, and other tactile interfaces live forever, but touchscreens can at least be powerful options for the digital realm between tactile musical control and composition, as a more direct way to reach out and touch interactive interfaces for sound.