It’s hard to assemble an April Fool’s Joke involving technology these days, because actual inventions keep proving stranger than fiction. When Google created a prank involving gestures for controlling email, it was only a matter of time before someone whipped up a prototype that actually did the job.

The Moog Music company, therefore, may be asking for trouble. Their highly-entertaining polyphonic Theremin is spot-on parody, down to the “Stairway to Heaven” solo. And part of the geekier joke for Theremin players is the knowledge that the technology behind this instrument makes what they’re describing safely impossible.

But what’s impossible with conventional Theremin technology could be very possible with computer vision – even the goofy gestures in Moog’s faked video. Artist, inventor, and musician Tim Thompson has been at the bleeding edge of new music instruments for some time. It wouldn’t be overstatement to say Tim was using multi-touch before multi-touch was cool. When I shared a booth with him at Maker Faire a few years ago, he had with him FingerWorks hardware, a now-discontinued tactile, multi-touch pad, and was using it to play visuals live. In a pattern too often repeated in technology, the independent niche tool was snapped up by a larger player. In this case, that larger player was Apple – and, apparently backed at least in part by FingerWorks’ know-how and patents, Apple made history.

In a new project filmed by the superb Modulate This!, Tim works instead with touch-less control, using the Kinect to track multiple areas of expression. (Tim is using the free environment Cinder, which joins tools like Processing and OpenFrameworks as well-liked options for Kinect hackers. In this case, the Kinect support itself comes from libfreenect, the open-source drivers for Mac, Windows, and Linux.)

What he’s built, in other words, is a true polyphonic Theremin – able to play more than one line and employ more than a monophonic gesture, all without touch. The joke may be on Moog.

Read the full story on Modulate This, Mark Mosher’s all-original repository for great writing on music making.
An Exclusive First Look at Tim Thompson’s Kinect-Based Instrument: MultiMultiTouchTouch
(Thanks to Tim and Roger Linn for sending this my way!)

Part of the value of trying extreme ideas is to demonstrate not only advantages, but disadvantages. And I still find some reason to express healthy skepticism. The similarity to the Theremin isn’t accidental in the Kinect experiments. These projects also inherit the Theremin’s weaknesses. A lack of tactile feedback means it’s difficult to orient pitch or achieve precise control, without the resistance a physical object provides. Reliance on gestural control also opens the opportunity for accidental input and calibration challenges. (The Kinect fares better than the Theremin, but it’s not immune to similar problems, if for different reasons.) Taking a page from the Theremin, Tim’s physical frame makes a big difference – while it doesn’t provide tactile resistance, it at least creates a point of reference in physical space.

The Kinect also adds a new problem the Theremin didn’t face: latency. All of this means if you still like knobs, keys, strings, or even physical multi-touch (which can in certain variations provide excellent tactile feedback via deformable meshes), you needn’t worry. Your revolution may not be Kinect-ified.

But if there were one perfect design for musical instruments, we’d all play just one instrument. Instead, the history of instrument design across the world is an evolutionary explosion of different tradeoffs, different playing styles, and resulting different musical idioms. Any joke can become an instrument, just as any instrument – to someone – can seem like a joke. And that means if you’re looking for something new, you might just celebrate every day as if it’s April Fool’s Day. No kidding.

Updated: Tim offers some comments. He says what other musicians experimenting with Kinect have told me – that while it has certain restrictions as a solo instrumental controller, there’s tremendous potential for multi-user scenarios like installations. And that is itself significant (back to the question of choosing tradeoffs in order to accomplish goals). Tim writes:

Folks whose goal is to replace conventional instruments are sure to be disappointed, as you describe. You could add more detail on other goals:

Goal: using it for art installations at events like Burning Man, creating new and “casual” instruments which are unusual yet inviting and easy to play. Matt Bell ran an experiment related to that goal:

Goal: creating controllers which have a much larger visual appeal to an audience, who deserve performers more interesting to look at than someone hunched over buttons and sliders. That’s the reason why musicians like Mark Mosher are interested, in the same way he’s interested in the Percussa Audiocubes, for their visual appeal in performances.

Goal: provide an instrument that dancers can use in performances. I’ll be exploring this in the fall, with a choreographer friend.

Good food for thought; feel free to discuss more in comments.