sketchy theremin

testing out a theremin-inspired device built from some speakers and an optical distance sensor

testing out a theremin-inspired device built from some speakers and an optical distance sensor

In 2011 I attended a 4-day workshop, which was led by interaction designer Camille Mousette. Haptic sketching is a approach aimed at supporting the development of rapid physical prototypes using puppetry and simple actuation (with devices like arduino). I already had some prior experience with arduino, but the workshop compelled me to dive in even deeper into the world of sensors and actuators. Since the workshop, this type of exploratory, hands on prototyping has become a go-to method for tackling new problems or testing the boundaries of my design ideas.(Also see my day 3 project.)

On day 2, myself and another attendee decided to play around with using speakers. We wired up a simple device that allowed the user to switch between two music channels (each pumped through an individual speaker) simply by pressing down one either side of a metal switch constructed from mechano to physically dampen one of the two speakers. This device alone created some great beats.

But, not content to stop there, we proceeded to turn the device into a more complex, theremin inspired instrument. We embedded an optical sensor inside a piece of moldable plastic, which we formed into a control that could sit between a player’s fingers. The optical sensor detected the distance above a surface that a user held their hand, and then change the sounds output from the speakers in response. We also added added feedback to the user through a vibratory motor in the control, which would vibrate as the user approached the boundaries between notes.

We wired up the speakers to play different notes depending on the position of the control, so that the user could use the switch to quickly move back and worth between speakers to create different notes. Finally, we set our follow attendees loose to make some delightfully fun (but admittedly terrible) music.

methods and tools
haptic sketching
foam and mechanos
newly acquired electronic assembly know-how


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