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.