Dig into humanity’s past, and alongside the earliest tools, you’ll find some of the earliest instruments. Designing objects for expression seems to be an essential part of civilization.

Martin Kaltenbrunner, a co-designer of the Reactable tangible music interface, is also a professor in Interface Culture at the Linz University of Arts in Austria. There, in the land of Mozart and Haydn, he works with students to explore what interface design is.

So, when I got to spend some time with Martin in New York in September, I was interested in more than just the flashy coolness of the Reactable, the futuristic table-with-blocks interface for music. We got a chance to talk about instrument design generally. The funny thing about the Reactable is that it is closer to the experience of working with a modular synthesizer and oscilloscope than anything else, with the sense of physical connections of sound to object you’d get from classic synths. It is something unique, truly, but that’s its pedigree.

Martin and I got to give a talk together at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York, a terrific hub in which Austrian artists frequently are paired with New York-based folks, all in a lean, tall modern landmark building in Midtown. We also performed together, which for me was a real pleasure; Martin claims not to be a musician as such, but was good fun as an improvisation partner.

The next day, we headed to Manhattan music education center Dubspot, where Martin’s creation quickly attracted crowds of interested students and educators. Dubspot filmed our encounter for the video at top. Amusingly, the prominent synth sounds you hear at the beginning are not the Reactable, but our own MeeBlip open source synth, which I brought along to illustrate conventional tangible instrument design with switches and knobs. (If you’ve been impatiently waiting for news on the MeeBlip, believe me, I’m even more impatient – more announcements on that this week and next, following a production quality issue with a contractor that required us to reboot the run of new instruments.)

Reactable Live @ Dubspot! Interactive Sound Design Workshop Video Recap [Dubspot Blog]

YouTube commenters, that subtle and thoughtful bunch, are complaining that the tangible Reactable will set you back thousands of Euros. But at ACF and Dubspot, I was also equipped with the far more economical and portable alternative: Reactable Mobile runs on both Android and iOS. (I was pleasantly surprised to discover the app runs perfectly on a Galaxy Tab 10.1 from Samsung; I’m still a long, long way from being able to recommend buying an Android tablet, but if you’ve got one, I can certainly recommend this app.) Now, don’t get me wrong: the experience was nowhere near as fun as using the table. On the other hand, you can’t fit the table into a seat-back pocket on easyJet, and the savings in cash is proportional to the sacrifice in experience. What impresses me is that the design of the physical Reactable “flattens” so nicely onto the screen; I think it’s a user experience triumph that you can make that translation. And I was able to load up a few loops of my own music and jam along with the MeeBlip and Martin on the (real) Reactable.

Looking beyond the Reactable, Martin addressed these larger issues of tangible interface design at TEDx Vienna – a fitting locale for talking the history and future of music. His whole presentation, and a sweeping concept map of what he discussed, is available.

Martin Kaltenbrunner: Tangible Music

If you just want to get your Reactable on and can’t afford the table, see Reactable Mobile below. (Seen here on an iPad 2, but I’ve run successfully on the original iPad and the Galaxy Tab – the experience is more or less identical, thanks to portable code.)

And if you can afford the table, you rockstar, uh, can we be your friend?

[the awesome table version]
Martin Kaltenbrunner website [with plenty of academic links]