The Spine

Design and development: Joseph Malloch, Ian Hattwick, Anthony Piciacchia
Time period: 2011–present

The Spine is a “prosthetic” digital musical instrument developed for the collaborative project Les Gestes, in which we endeavoured to design new instruments for dancers.  The new instruments extrapolate from the T-Stick, which we had already used in the performance Duo pour un violoncelle et un danseur with the same collaborators. Starting with foam prototypes, the Spine and its companion instruments the Rib and the Visor were developed iteratively using participatory design through frequent workshops, parallel problem solving, and digital fabrication methods. The current models are fabricated from laser-cut transparent acrylic, transparent PVC tubing, and PETg rods. The entire structure is assembled using interference fitting rather than any glues or fasteners.

The Spine tracks and reports its orientation and shape in real-time, accomplished through the use of inertial and magnetic-field sensing at each end of the structure. Sensor-fusion algorithms run on-board the instrument. Below you can see an early test of the sensing system embedded into one of the foam prototypes – these fully functional prototypes were used in workshops for exploring movement, music, and the mapping between them more than a year before the final production.

In the meantime we moved forward with development of form and materials for the final versions of the instruments. Digital fabrication techniques were used extensively during the design and development of the Spine, allowing us to move quickly through design iterations and compare competing ideas and approaches.

Diagram showing progress through design iterations of the Spine DMI.

Diagram showing progress through design iterations of the Spine DMI.

Mapping from movement/gesture to sound was developed with the composers during intensive workshops, supported by several other tools we have developed: libmapper and a graphical mapping interface. Each Spine outputs 25 different parameters available for mapping.

Below is a short demonstration of the Spine DMI mapped to a granular synthesizer:

There are also a few brief shots of the spine in the videos below:

Related publications:

Joseph Malloch, Ian Hattwick, and Marcelo M. Wanderley. “Instrumented Bodies: Prosthetic Instruments for Music and Dance”. In A Framework and Tools for Mapping of Digital Musical Instruments, Ph.D. thesis, Music Technology, McGill University, Montréal, 2013.

Ian Hattwick, Joseph Malloch, and Marcelo M. Wanderley. “Forming Shapes to Bodies: Design for Manufacturing in the Prosthetic Instruments”. In Proceedings of the 2014 International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME2014), pp. 443–448, London, UK, 2014.