By Luc Dormehl
Have you ever had to make the difficult choice between a chunky knit scarf and a new keyboard as part of your monthly budget? Damn, the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab has the piece of convergence culture for you!
Building on the observation that most keyboards in the world until now have been somewhat rigid, the KnittedKeyboard II seeks to spark a paradigm shift in expectations through an interactive, textile-based musical device with the familiar arrangement of the piano keys. And the unfamiliar nature of being a musical knit.
“It is a musical keyboard made of expressive, soft and stretchy threads” Ireland Wicaksono, engineer and designer currently holding a doctorate. candidate for MIT Media Lab, said Digital Trends. “It is entirely textile-based, which makes it transportable, aesthetically unique and pleasant to the fingers. This is made using machine knitting, which allows us to fully customize the look or colors, the number of keys and octaves, as well as [the tactile properties such as] spongy, stretchable and electrical properties… by computer programming the knitting pattern and feeding various common and functional yarns.
The project would have started with the intention of being a portable, foldable keyboard for the late American jazz musician Lyle Mays to use for composing on the go. Ultimately, said Wicaksono, “the project became more than that.”
A musical experience
A knitted keyboard is, of course, a kind of gadget. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s the kind of eye-catching experimentation that can yield interesting results. In this case, it opens up new ways of playing discrete notes, effects and modulations. this is not the first unusual technology meets musical instrument project that we’ve seen come out of MIT, but it’s certainly some of the most interesting up there.
“The fact that the knitted keyboard is spongy and elastic, while being intrinsically integrated with fabric sensors that respond to pressure and stretch, allows for an intimate relationship between physical gestures and sound,” said Wicaksono. “Some comments I’ve received from musicians are that it seems the fabric interface is alive because it directly embodies sound and expressions. It makes the experience organic.
Wicaksono’s work goes far beyond portable instruments. “There are other real-world applications with this e-textile technology because we know textiles are ubiquitous,” he said. “I love this idea of reinventing the textiles we already have, like a scarf, shirt, padding or rug. Besides physical interaction, my other job [involves] seeking to integrate electronics into shirts for sports and medical applications or mats for activity recognition.
And, in the meantime, are there any plans to market this keyboard? “Since the KnittedKeyboard was made using machine knitting, a ubiquitous manufacturing process in the apparel and technical fabrics industry, the product is certainly viable for commercialization,” said Wicaksono. “Machine knitting is an additive manufacturing process. Therefore, besides being customizable, it is more durable and cost effective because it creates little or no waste.
Coming soon to a music store near you, then. Perhaps.