Reference works for Extended Guitar Performance #1

I dedicated this weekend to a first round of finding similar reference works and publications since this is also one of the tasks due for the Exposé.

Imogen Heap’s Mi.Mu gloves

One of the artists I stumbled upon during my research that makes use of hand movements and gestures to perform and compose her music is Imogen Heap. Considered a pioneer in pop and electropop music, she is a co-developer of the so-called Mi.Mu gloves, gesture controllers in glove form that Heap uses to control and manipulate recorded music and/or her musical equipment during a (live) performance.

As she explained in an interview with Dezeen, Heap found the conventional way of playing keyboards or computers on stage very restrictive since most of her actions like pressing buttons or moving a fader were hidden from the audience and thus not very expressive, even though they may constitute a musically important act. Her goal was to find a way to play her instruments and technology in a way that better represents the qualities of the sounds produced and allows the audience to understand what is going on on stage.

Inspired by a similar MIT project in 2010, the gloves underwent eight years of R&D, with the development team consisting of NASA and MIT scientist alongside Heap. While Heap has used prototypes for several years now during her live performances, also other artists were occasionally seen to try them out. Ariana Grande for example used the gloves on her 2015 tour. In July 2019, the Mi.Mu gloves became commercially available for the first time promising to be “the world’s most advanced wearable musical instrument, for expressive creation, composition and performance”.

The Mi.Mu gloves contain several sensors including:

  • an accelerometer, a magnetometer, and a gyroscope in the form of an IMU motion tracker, located at the wrist, that gives information regarding the hand’s position, rotation and speed
  • a flex sensor over the knuckles to identify the hand’s posture in order to interpret certain gestures
  • a haptic motor that provides the “glove wielder” with haptic feedback: it vibrates for example if a certain note sequence is played

To send the signals to the computer, the gloves use WLAN and Open Sound Control (OSC) data instead of MIDI data. The gloves themselves are made from e-textiles, a special kind of fabric that acts as a conductor for information. Furthermore, the gloves come with the company’s own Glover software to map your own custom movements and gestures which can be integrated into DAWs such as Ableton Live or Logic Pro X.

Unfortunately, the Mi.Mu gloves still cost about £2,500 (converted about 3,000 €) and are, on top of that, currently sold out due to the worldwide chip shortage. A limited number of gloves is expected to become available in early 2022.

Key take-aways for own project

First of all, Heap’s Mi.Mu gloves serve to confirm the feasibility of my project since the technology involved is quite similar. The gloves also use an IMU sensor which is also my current go-to sensor to track the movements of a guitar player’s hands. Although Heap mostly uses the gloves to manipulate her voice, I found a video that shows her playing the keyboard in between as well. This shows that wearing the sensors on one’s hands does not necessarily interfere with playability of an instrument which is a very important requirement for my project.

Interestingly, the gloves rely on WLAN and OSC instead of MIDI which is definitely a factor that calls for additional research from my side. OSC comes with some advantages over MIDI especially as far as latency and accuracy are concerned which makes it ideal for use in real-time musical performances. Furthermore, data is conveyed over LAN or WLAN which eliminates the need for cables. Moreover, OSC is supported by open-source software such as Super Collider or Pure Data which could make it even more attractive for my project.

Finally, I want to use Imogen Heap and her glove-supported performances as a source of inspiration in order to come up with playing techniques or effect possibilities for my own project.


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