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We'll Soon Be Playing Instruments With Our Minds

We'll Soon Be Playing Instruments With Our Minds
Sash Popovic

By Dave Good

The future of music, says Los Angeles inventor Vince De Franco, will be hands-free. Instead of plugging in and tuning up in the conventional sense, musicians will engage various instruments with their minds. They will think the music.

"The research that's going on in terms of reading brain waves and eavesdropping on mind processes," De Franco tells us, "is moving from the medical realm into the realm of self-expression."

According to the journal Music and Medicine, experimentation with music using computer-driven systems interacting with the user's brain is already happening in the United Kingdom, primarily as a therapeutic tool for people with severe physical disabilities. Elsewhere, similar interfaces picking up on the infinitesimal electrical impulses generated by one's neurons are being used to drive cars, control prosthetic arms and operate kids' games.

"There's a Star Wars toy that works [if one] concentrates in a certain way while wearing a headband," De Franco says. Jedi mind tricks? No. "The energy is sent to a little fan that causes a ball to rise inside a tube. It costs about 75 bucks. I've tried it. It's pretty cool."

De Franco, 43, may be the guy who will eventually bring hands-free musicianship to the masses. He has a bachelor's degree in physics from Georgetown and has worked for 20 years in audio and technical engineering and R&D, the past 10 at his Synesthesia Corporation, a small company based in Laurel Canyon.

In 1994 he developed the first Dimension Beam, a laser-powered interface that senses movement and translates it to sound. (Roland Synthesizers sells it as the D-Beam.) A few years later, Tool drummer Danny Carey wanted an electronic drum skin with ungodly fast triggers and lots of computer memory. And so De Franco, who has toured as Tool's synthesizer player, invented a membrane switch. In 2006 the Mandala, the world's first smart drumhead, was born.

But the real trick lies in playing instruments without actually touching them. Via the use of electrodes planted on a subject's head (rather than in it), De Franco sees the next step as a hat or a headband full of sensors. "Brain signals would then be processed in a way that is similar to the way they are used to move robotic arms."

For skeptics who have a hard time imagining Slash without a guitar, De Franco notes that the technology may not be right for everyone. "But it can work for a certain type of band." Kraftwerk, for example.

It takes most humans years to perfect the playing of a musical instrument. With the hands-free factor, where exactly does that leave us? On the doorstep of a new era, says De Franco.

"Every person is a musician. The way we speak, our tonality, and so on."

The act of making music, he says, "will become a lot more socially interconnected.

Inhibitions will drop, because you will have a more direct contact with what's inside.

Self-esteem and personal relationships will no longer be walled off by barriers to self-expression, because they won't be in the way any longer." A direct realization, says De Franco, of sound and music creation.

"And I see that," he concludes, "as a spreading of happiness."

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