Future-tech expo: Sci-fi saxes, 3D-printed human hearts (pictures)

Project yourself into a virtual music studio or control sound with the movement of your hand. The CalArts Digital Arts and Technology Expo highlights creative visions for the future of gaming, music, and more.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
Leslie Katz
1 of 10 Jon He and Kameron Christopher


Imagine controlling the music you're dancing to with a sweep of the hand. That's one vision for Kontrol, a new wearable interface by CalArts students Jon He and Kameron Christopher that would, among other uses, give traditional instrumentalists and dancers more freedom to interact with multimedia during performances.

In addition to being used as a music controller, the system could be used to track musicians' movements and help them improve on their technique. Pictured here with a Guqin -- a seven-stringed plucked instrument that goes back 5,000 years -- Kontrol will be on display Thursday at the California Institute of the Arts Digital Arts and Technology Expo, which highlights student and faculty innovations.

CalArts was founded by Walt Disney in the early 1960s and now is one of the nation's top art schools. The event goes from noon to 10 p.m. on the school's Valencia, Calif., campus. Admission is free, as is this photo gallery showcasing some of the expo's creative highlights.

2 of 10 Jon He and Kameron Christopher

Kontrol-ing the sax

Designed to be lightweight, the Kontrol features six accelerometers on the left hand that pick up on subtle movements and convey that gestural data to an Arduino Fio microcontroller board that communicates wirelessly with the computer.

"The hand movements of a skilled musician can provide very useful information on what the musician is playing, how they are playing it, and possibly what they intend to do next," the creators of the Kontrol say in their research paper.

A rechargeable battery powers Kontrol, which the creators hope to condense in future iterations. If the idea of controlling music through gestures sounds familiar, you may have seen Imogen Heap's similar magical musical gloves.

3 of 10 Colin Honigman

The Third Room

In The Third Room, users play music through physical movement. The interactive audio and visual environment projects a virtual video-game-style performance space in front of the user, who then interacts with digital instruments via a Kinect camera. Here, a user waves his hand to create a virtual ball that can be thrown around the virtual space to trigger a custom-made robotic instrument called the Modulet Grid, which hangs above.

CalArts students Colin Honigman and Andrew Walton created The Third Room, with robotics by student Christopher Pheiffer and Ajay Kapur, associate dean for research and development in digital arts.

4 of 10 Colin Honigman

Floor drumming

In The Third Room, different gestures create different sounds that can be layered to create an original composition. Touching the floor, for example, activates the system to perform like a step sequencer that plays percussive sounds. That, plus some hand waving, and you've got yourself a tune.
5 of 10 Perry Cook

Walter the robot

Inspired by robots that can be taken apart to fit into cases for shipping, Perry Cook -- founder of the Princeton University Sound Lab and a permanent visiting artist at CalArts -- created robots that are the cases themselves. The results are portable, battery-powered, wireless, retro-styled robots in cases that have special meaning to Cook's family. This wooden box containing the Walter robot belonged to Walter, the great uncle of Cook's wife.

At Thursday's CalArts expo, Walter the box will play a key role on stage in a robot-conducted performance. The box will start thumping as Cook leaves the stage to get another box (Valice). Walter will thump more aggressively while Cook sets up Valice. More sounds will enter the mix as Walter, the lead bot, triggers synced laptops. During the performance, Walter will cue handheld robotic instruments in the audience.

6 of 10 CalTech

Metal Heart

For Raphael Arar's Metal Heart, which is more of a conceptual art piece than anything, a wire coil strikes an aluminum-coated model of a human heart at the rate of an average heart beating. By connecting a fundamental biological human process to outside automation, the 3D-printed aluminum heart is meant to serve as a reflection on human autonomy in light of technological progress.
7 of 10 Raphael Arar

Aluminum heartbeat

Raphael Arar's art piece, Metal Heart, will beat Thursday at CalArts Digital Arts and Technology Expo, which this year points to possible future directions in gaming, animation, human computer interaction, digital performance, graphic design, projection mapping, and machine learning.

8 of 10 Bruce Lot and Mark Morris

Turntable Synthesizer

The Turntable Synthesizer uses projection mapping to turn a turntable into a display surface for video, which could give DJs and performers -- as well as onlookers -- a striking light show to accompany the beats at a party or club. Dedicated software tracks the rotation of the vinyl disc by analyzing the audio on the special control signal disc and uses that data to rotate an image in sync with the disc. Rotating the disc also sends signals to an analog synthesizer, creating audio and visual compositions in real time.
9 of 10 Bruce Lot and Mark Morris

Groovy projection

The Turntable Synthesizer would have been a big hit at parties in the '60s.

10 of 10 CalArts

Aqua Harp

The CalArts expo also will feature the premiere of Aqua Harp, an update on the glass harp of yore and the newest addition to CalArts' Machine Orchestra, comprised of robot and human musicians who play electronic and world music. The kinetic sound sculpture uses tuned water glasses and solenoid actuators to produce a unique brand of music.

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