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Weird Science

We'll Soon Be Playing Instruments With Our Minds

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Tue, Sep 11, 2012 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge SASH POPOVIC
  • 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.

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