Some would have us believe that there is a coming boom in hardware startups. With fast, low-risk platforms like Kickstarter and Quirky out there, we’re inclined to agree—and it’s about damn time. It’s becoming a chore: Tooling around with slab-like iPhones and iPads, pretending they are levels or clocks or drawing tablets. How about just creating smart things that aren’t trapped inside a glass panel?
Perhaps the worst offenders are music-creation apps. Tactile feedback is vital to instruments of all sorts, and here the iPad is a particularly poor simulacrum. Some musicians have been turning to iPads running instrument apps to help them create music on the cheap and in new innovative ways, and that’s cool. But this touch-sensitive keyboard is far cooler.
TouchKeys is an overlay that works with any standard keyboard, giving it multi-touch capacity and the ability for vibrato and pitch change—all manipulated in the way you stroke the key. The recently launched Kickstarter campaign is from project lead developer Andrew McPherson, who spent two years of research at Drexel University and continued on at the College of Queen Mary at University of London. No stranger to "smart" instruments, McPherson did some consulting with Roli Seaboard last year on circuit design for their prototypes.
The Seaboard is a keyboard completely re-imagined, while TouchKeys is a more incremental step toward the inevitable shift in making music. McPherson says the TouchKeys panel was created for musicians looking to expand the possibilities of their playing in mind—simulating non-traditional instruments and sounds via real black-and-white keys.
So how does it work? "The software gathers the data from the touch sensors and from the keyboard they're installed on and puts together a complete picture of how you play," explains McPherson. "It uses that information to drive any software or hardware synthesizer. Once you select the TouchKeys device and the MIDI instruments you want to use, the software mostly runs in the background, though it can also generate a real-time display of where the fingers touch the keys. It also generates MIDI messages, splitting each note to its own MIDI channel."
An impressive demo for sure, but the relatively high cost for anyone but enthusiasts keeps this current implementation just out of reach for the mainstream. Seeing the different Kickstarter rewards that offer keyboards with TouchKeys pre-installed, however, it's hard not to imagine eventually partnering with current instrument manufacturers as a possible end goal for TouchKeys. McPherson does say that is one possibility. "Instrument manufacturers can bring a lot to the table that is harder to do as an independent designer or university researcher, but it's too soon to say exactly what comes next," he says. "For now the focus is on getting these instruments directly into the hands of musicians."