Alexander Refsum Jensenius
Of the more than 1200 papers published at the NIME conferences, Adrian Freed’s paper resonates particularly with me. This is not only because of my vivid memory of his NIME 2012 poster with embedded paper sensors, being presented in a very warm and crowded poster space in a beautiful building at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, but also because of the many philosophical questions that arise from the paper itself. To mention a few, which I will focus on in the rest of this commentary: (1) reimplementation of old interfaces, (2) sustainable development, (3) importance of sensor materials, (4) cost and accessibility of electronics.
In the quest for constantly developing new instruments, we forget the possibility of improving on the qualities of old ones. Here the NIME community differs considerably from traditional luthier traditions in which the craft of manufacturing one particular type of instrument has been at the core of attention for centuries. But also non-canonised instruments of the past may deserve attention and redevelopment. The Fingerphone is a good example of this, building as it is on the Stylophone, a portable electronic musical instrument commercialized in the 1970s. According to Freed, three million of these instruments were sold by 1975, mainly in the UK, which is a considerable figure for an electronic musical instrument.
Freed’s interest in reimplementing the instrument appears to mainly come out of curiosity, rather than a musical need (such as for playing a particular historical piece). The end result, the Fingerphone, therefore also deviates from the original instrument in many ways, and should be evaluated more as a proof-of-concept than a finalised design. This is also something Freed recognises when suggests that the Fingerphone may not have a direct impact on sustainability issues, but rather serve as a strong signal that more environmentally responsible materials and design techniques are available.
Exactly this focus on sustainable development is, in my opinion, the strongest contribution of this paper. As music technologists, we have to take our share in reducing waste and promote the use of more ecologically friendly materials and components in our designs. Much has changed in the electronics industry since the Stylophone was developed, but, as Freed writes, the lack of thinking complete lifecycle costs of instruments has a considerable ecological cost.
Starting his development process from the focus on reducing the number of parts, Freed uses the built-in pull-up resistors of each I/O pin in conjunction with the ambient capacitance measured between each key and its surrounding keys. That way he is able to reduce the total number of parts from the 65 components of the Stylophone to six components of the Fingerphone.
In addition to reducing the number of parts, Freed is also driven by an interest in using recyclable materials, hence the interest in using conductive paper for the sensors. This is something I have also been interested in, after I developed the CheapStick together with Rodolphe Koehly at McGill University (Jensenius et al. 2005). Besides being recyclable, conductive paper is a fascinating material for sensor design also because it opens for very flexible sensor sizes and shapes. This makes them very useful for prototyping (Koehly et al. 2014).
Another interesting asset of paper sensors is that they may have a very different tactile feel than normal sensors typically made of plastic. Thus the “feel” of an instrument can be quite different, something which is often forgotten when designing electronic instruments in, for example, plastic. The downside to this, of course, is that paper as a material is less durable than plastic. My experience with the paper sensors on the CheapStick was that the sensing capacity changed considerably after being used for some time. Such a deterioration of the sensors can be creatively interesting, but is not ideal for instruments meant for long-term usage. So paper sensors are perhaps most relevant for prototyping and short-lived instruments.
The final element that I find important with this paper is its inherent, yet not clearly outspoken, focus on cost and accessibility. This is something I have explored in several of my own prototype instruments, such as the CheapStick and the Music Balls (Jensenius and Voldsund 2012). The access to cheaper parts, and design processes that value simplicity over complexity, may be seen as a true democratisation of electronic instrument building.