Thinking about design and collaboration
I was talking with a friend the other day about my project, and we started talking about effective design. Effective design is hard to nail down. Many research papers, such as this one, relate to “exploratory” design, where the user isn’t really expected to have any previous experience with musical interfaces or applications. The utility of the device is questionable. The users do not have much compositional control over their musical environment. However, the intent of the device is not for professional musicians, but for anybody with the capability to move around a collection of jars. The use of tangible items to control a digital medium is a common thread among electronic musicians. The biggest surge in popularity for software based DAW (Digital Audio Workstations) have enjoyed has been through the use of “dumb” midi controllers that act as secondary controllers to the standard mouse and keyboard interface.
The design for most workstations has been “more knobs = better”. If you look at professional grade recording studios, you can see evidence of this design mindset. The knobs all have static maps to certain tracks, and they offer an easy way for the sound engineer to manipulate small nuances of the track at an extremely high resolution. However, this kind of interface takes up a lot of space and usually the engineers must take a year or two to get up to speed on how to use them fully. Midi interfaces that seek to emulate these mixers, such as Steinberg’s Houston, improve on this slightly by allowing each individual control to be mapped to a large number of different parameters. The mapping can be changed instantly through the use of the onboard menu. In this way, a sound engineer can control a large number of parameters tangibly while only using a small amount of space. However, it still uses the same slider/knob paradigm for the manipulation of midi control parameters (Midi Channel Settings). These control parameters can be applied to volume, effect balance (reverb, distortion), panning, tone, or pretty much any continuos control parameter you could apply to
Other companies have tried slight variations of this control scheme. Penny and Giles comes to mind with their “infinite belt” midi controllers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with any pictures of their controller as they went out of business a long time ago. Their version of a slider control looked something like an embedded “tank” tread that rolled along indefinitely. The current level for the control was given as a backlit LED that shone through the transparent belt. You could set up the belt to be more/less sensitive, and choose how the control handled “out of bound” positions when the belt control went beyond the limits of the LED meter. Some common settings for this was to clip, wrap around (scrolling it further set the LED scale and control parameter back to the initial state), or reverse (further directional control movements caused an inverse change in the control parameter.
Still another method for manipulating control parameters was offered by the makers of the MIDI i-CubeX. Using an incredibly wide array of sensors and controllers, I-CubeX allows for the manipulation of midi parameters through a multitude of signalling/ sensing mediums. You can use body heat to affect volume, movement to affect panning, or touch to affect tone. It’s interesting to note that this system pre-dates the popular “Phidget” controllers that seem to be used in a lot of HCI projects lately. This method finally breaks free of the knob and slider control paradigm, but doesn’t offer a coherent design framework (or even a suggestion) for incorporating different sensor elements into a professional control system.
So, to bring this thing full circle, I’m starting to question my judgement to build a collaboration interface on top of conventional electronic musician DAW software. Is there a more relevant problem pertaining to control interfaces that I need to address first? Will my project be irrelevant once the “new wave” of control interfaces come out?