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Member in the Spotlight: TouchKeys Multi-Touch Musical Keyboard Launches on Kickstarter

This guest post is submitted by Dr Andrew McPherson.

 

I’m an electronic engineer, composer, and Lecturer in the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London. My research focuses on creating new “augmented instruments”, traditional musical instruments whose capabilities have been extended with digital technology. This work involves a cycle of hardware design, user interface design, collaborations with performers and composers, and improvements based on their feedback and my own musical experience.

Getting research out of the lab and into the community can be a challenge for any project. But for musical instrument design, proper evaluation often requires getting the instrument into extended use in the concert hall. To help make this happen, I’ve turned to the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to get my most recent instrument into the hands of musicians.

The instrument is called TouchKeys, and it adds multi-touch sensing to the surface of any piano-style keyboard. Traditionally on the keyboard, it has been difficult for a performer to add the kinds of expressive nuances commonly found on string and wind instruments, such as vibrato, pitch bends and changes in timbre. Existing solutions usually involve clumsy wheels or pedals, but the TouchKeys bring a new level of control to the keyboard, letting the player execute these techniques just by moving the fingers on the key surfaces.

 


The TouchKeys reflect over two years of research at Drexel University and Queen Mary, University of London. Having reached a state of near-completion with the hardware and software, the next step became evaluating the instrument with musicians. But musical instrument evaluation can be a challenge: there is only so much to be learned from an hourlong session with a performer who hasn’t seen it before. To really understand the interaction between performer and instrument, extended use is needed, ideally under real-world musical conditions. However, sending hardware systems out to musicians faces logistical and financial hurdles.

Enter Kickstarter. This crowd-funding platform has exploded in popularity in recent years. The premise is that a campaign collects pledges from backers, who will receive a reward in exchange for their pledge once the campaign completes. For technology projects, Kickstarter is often used as a kind of pre-ordering system: pledge now and receive the product when it is finished. Each campaign has a target funding level and a deadline; if the campaign fails to reach its target, all pledges are cancelled and neither creator nor backers are charged anything.

Kickstarter is an ideal vehicle for launching a new musical instrument. My campaign offers TouchKeys instruments in four keyboard sizes and do-it-yourself sensor kits for musicians to transform their existing keyboard into a multi-touch control surface. The campaign page features several videos showing the instrument in action. It is non-commercial in that I have set the pricing to cover my production costs rather than to turn a profit.

For my work as a researcher and musician, the Kickstarter campaign serves several goals at once. It helps disseminate my instrument designs, getting them out to the wider musical community. By establishing a user base, I can also gather feedback which will inform future research. And just as importantly, it supports the creation of interesting new music!

I am excited to get the TouchKeys into widespread musical use. The campaign seeks £30k in funding by September 2nd to support the manufacturing of the instruments, with over 75% raised at the time of this writing. Kickstarter has been a useful tool for me, and other researchers may likewise find it a good option for sharing their results with a wider community.

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