Culture

Forget instruments -- use your hand motions to make music

What if you could make music out of thin air? A startup called SoundSpace wants you to do exactly that, with a little help from virtual reality.

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SoundSpace lets you use virtual reality to make music.

Erin Carson/CNET

The best musicians make the act of playing music look effortless. But don't worry if you missed out on years of childhood piano lessons. Ohio-based startup SoundSpace wants to give everybody the ability to make music easily with their hands.

How? Virtual reality of course.

SoundSpace's latest incarnation, demoed in San Francisco on Wednesday at TechCrunch Disrupt, uses an HTC Vive virtual reality headset. Put on the goggles and select musical instruments. In a virtual environment, you can use the Vive controllers to manipulate all kinds of sounds, whether a drum set or dubstep-style electronic music.

Turn your wrist, raise your arm, move your hands closer or farther apart. It's fun, and altering a note or a beat is as simple as a gesture.

"What if [sound] was a tangible object that you could hold and manipulate? You can make it wider, you can make it bigger, you can muffle it by holding your fingers together, you can distort it by twisting it between your hands," founder Ray Li said to me over the phone a few days earlier.

It sounds like a drug trip, but SoundSpace actually evolved from an academic project over the course of several semesters while Li was a student at Cornell University. As an applied physics major with a music minor, he'd been working on an instrument -- something like a one-string cello with a sensor -- called the Sabre.

While trying to improve the function of a joystick that would let the user manipulate notes, he had a realization: "What if we got rid of the instrument entirely?"

From there, Li made gloves with sensors that would let users play with programmed sounds depending on how they moved and oriented their hands. Do it the right way, and you had a song on your hands.

SoundSpace isn't the first to tackle how to turn motion and gestures into music. Artist Imogen Heap launched a Kickstarter in 2014 for her MiMu Gloves, which were programmable gloves with sensors for making music. Or, there's the Remidi T8, a Kickstarter campaign from earlier in 2016 for gloves that let users trigger sounds and effects and even record. Others are starting to play with the idea of creating tunes in VR, as well. SoundStage, for example, bills itself as a music instrument sandbox for room-scale VR.

Part of the appeal of making music with your hands, Li said, is the spectacle of it.

"If you look at the way electronic artists perform nowadays, it's very not performative. They stand at a laptop and they press play, or they're moving some knobs," he said.

It all brings to mind something like Mickey Mouse conjuring waves and music in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice." Li thinks virtual reality will offer far more expression and more control for artists than a panel of knobs and faders.

Who knows -- maybe DeadMou5 will turn his helmet into a VR headset one day.