Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Visionary Instruments: The Reactable

02 September 2007

Visionary Instruments: The Reactable

This is the first entry in a series I'll be doing on instruments that are revolutionizing the way we make - and understand - music. I was inspired to do this column by my introduction to one of the most inspiring inventions of any kind that I have ever seen, a wonderful new music performance device (it bends the definition of "instrument") called the reactable.

(I saw it at a Björk concert in April - leave it to her to debut musical technology that makes people feel like they've been cryogenically frozen for a hundred years!)

Devised by the Interactive Sonic Systems Team at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, the reactable is a totally novel musical control interface driven not by technology, but by a vision of a new way to make noise. The reactable homepage declares the intent behind it all - to make an instrument that is:

- collaborative: several performers (locally or remotely)
- intuitive: zero manual, zero instructions
- sonically challenging and interesting
- learnable and masterable (even for children)
- suitable for novices (installations) and advanced electronic musicians (concerts)

No small task, and yet these people have pulled the rabbit out of the hat. Here are some demonstrations:




Now that you have an inkling as to how this works, here's an example of the reactable in a live environment, on the Björk tour for which none of us were even remotely prepared (don't skip ahead, but the reactable is nicely featured in a segment starting at 4:36):



So yeah. Go visit the team's reactable media page for a score of additional videos that boggle the mind (as well as hi-res versions of those above, so you can feel even more futuristic - and even an amusing clip of Bob Moog playing an early protoype).

What tickles me the most is that, not only did the Interactive Sonic Systems team start with an idea and then bring the technology up to the level of that idea (which, as far as I'm concerned, is how it should be done: leading with intention), but that they left enough clues that you can build your own! All of their publications from the inception of the idea can be found here. The open-source code they wrote to control the visual recognition elements can be found here. A few pieces are still proprietary, but there's enough information scattered around in user groups that some buddies of mine, members of the Boulder, CO visionary art collective Motion For Alliance, built their own prototype. They brought it out for its debut last night at the Trilogy Wine Bar in Boulder - and, of course, it blew everybody away. Here's a video of their "bootleg" reactable:



They had four people working this thing last night, simultaneously - a vivid demonstration of the new realm of collaborative improvisation this thing opens up for us. (I'll try and post a video from the concert here soon.) Pretty soon, Fisher Price will be making one, they'll be selling them at Wal-Mart, and cafés will be spilling over with acoustic guitar and reactable duos...at which point, musicianship will be a whole new game. Spain, I tip my hat to you.