Looking back at people looking forward

In 1995, Heath, Luff, & Sellen lamented the uptake of video conferencing indicating that it had not at the time reached its promise. But looking back at this projection, the ubiquity of video systems for social and work communication can be seen. And subsequently, research has gone about understanding it further in a variety of HCI paradigms (CHI2010, CSCW2010, CHI2018). So, for my research, making projections on the use of VR for music collaboration, it might be that findings and insights do not reach fruition, either, in a timely fashion, or in the domain of interest that they were investigated in, or ever! Though this could be touching on a form of hindsight bias.

Going back to the article that speculated on the unobtained promise of video conferencing technologies, Heath Luff, and Sellen (1995), provide a piece of insight that can still be placed into perspective on design interventions for collaboration:

It becomes increasingly apparent, when you examine work and collaboration in more conventional environments, that the inflexible and restrictive views characteristic of even the most sophisticated media spaces, provide impoverished settings in which to work together. This is not to suggest that media space research should simply attempt to ‘replace’ co-present working environments, such ambitions are way beyond our current thinking and capabilities. Rather, we can learn a great deal concerning the requirements for the virtual office by considering how people work together and collaborate in more conventional settings. A more rigorous understanding of more conventional collaborative work, can not only provide resources with which to recognise how, in building technologies we are (inadvertently) changing the ways in which people work together, but also with ways in which demarcate what needs to be supported and what can be left to one side (at least for time being). Such understanding might also help us deploy these advanced technologies.

The bold section highlights the nub of what I’m interested in; for VR music collaboration systems. I break this down into how I’ve tackled framing collaboration in my research:

  • conventional collaborative work – ethnographies of current and developing practice. Even if you pitch a radical agenda of VR workspace, basic features of the domain of interest need to be understood for their contextual and technical practices.
  • building technology is changing practice – observing the impact of design interventions on how people collaborate in media production. Not only does a technology suggest new ways of working, it can enforce them! Observing and understanding this in domain-specific ways is important.
  • what needs to be supported – basic interactional requirements, we have to be able to make sense of each other, and the work, together, in an efficient manner.
  • what can be left to one side – the exact models and metaphors of how work is constructed in reality, in VR we can create work setups and perspectives that cannot exist in reality. For instance, shared spatial perspectives i.e. seeing the same thing from the same perspective is impossible in reality as we have to occupy a separate physical space. In repositioning basic features of spatial collaboration, the effects need to be understood in terms of interaction and domain requirement. But the value is in finding new ways of doing things not possible in face to face collaboration.

Overall, the key theme that should be taken away is that of humans’ need to communicate and collaborate. In this sense, any research that looks to make collaboration easier is provisioning for basic human understanding. That is quite nice to be a part of.

Polyadic update: changing hands

Managed to get the VR version of Polyadic scaled down, instead of a massive panel you have to stretch across to operate on, the scaled down version is roughly the width of an old MPC. This is important for visual pattern recognition in the music making process, but also the sizing allows for alternate workspace configurations, that are more ergonomic and can handle more toys being added!

To get the scaled down features to work a tool morphing process has been designed. The problem is the Oculus Rift and HTC Vice controllers are quite large, especially in comparison to a mouse pointer. So by using smaller hand models when you are in the proximity of the drum machine you can have a higher ratio of control to display, with respect to less of the hand model being able to physically touch features in the interface.


Control-display (C-D) ratio adaptation is an approach for facilitating target acquisition, for a mouse the C-D ratio is a coefficient that maps the physical displacement of the pointing device to the resulting on-screen cursor movement (Blanch, 2004), for VR it is the ratio between the amplitude of movements of the user’s real hand and the amplitude of movements of the virtual hand model. Low C-D ratio (high sensitivity) could save time when users are approaching a target, while high C-D ratio (low sensitivity) could help a user with fine adjustment when they reach the target area. Adaptive Control-Display ratios such as non-linear mappings have been shown to benefit 3D rotation and 3D navigation tasks.

But the consequence of this mapping change will be an expressive difference. In the original prototype with the oversized wall of buttons and sliders, the experience of physical exertion might have been quite enjoyable? By reducing this down, a very different body space will be created, the effects of this remain to be tested. Subjectively it did feel more precise and coherent as a VR interface, less toy-like and comical. As mentioned in the introduction, the sizing can have implications for pattern recognition. The smaller size allows you to overview the whole pattern while working on it, whereas previously the size meant stepping back or craning your neck to take it all in. It would be interesting to know how much effect the gestalt principles of pattern recognition have on cognitive load in music making situations, given the time-critical nature of the audiovisual interaction.

Blanch, R., Guiard, Y. & Beaudouin-Lafon, M., 2004. Semantic Pointing – Improving Target Acquisition with Control-display Ratio Adaptation. Proceedings of the International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’04), 6(1), pp.519–526. Available at: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/985692.985758.

Media comparison for collaborative music making

Image credit Nicolas Ulloa

Do you create electronic music? Are you a musician, producer, artist or DJ? Or are you a student or professional in Music / Music Technology? If so, I am running a study over the next few weeks (July & August) and would love your participation!

You will be invited to use and compare two different interfaces one in virtual reality and another screen-based. You will be asked to create some drum loops collaboratively with another person using the provided interfaces. You will then be asked to complete a survey about your experience.

The study will take two hours to complete, and you will be paid £25 for your participation. All studies will be done in Computer Science building on the Mile End Campus of Queen Mary University of London.

Study slots are available from 25/07/17 to 18/08/17. Monday-Friday – time slots at 10 am, 12.30 pm, 3.30 pm, and 6 pm. If none of these are suitable for you alternative arrangements can easily be made.

Unfortunately, this study has ended and further appointments are not being made.

If you are interested in the context of the research I have some resources here:

  • Polyadic: design and research of an interface for collaborative music making on a desktop or in VR.
  • Design for collaborative music making: some previous work on the user-centred design cycle involved in the progress of my PhD.

Lessons learned in VR dev

Following is some pastoral advice gained from doing a project in a new field when the brief is quite open. As with all advice, it depends on your personality!

Define the concept as simply as possible – if communication of the underlying concept isn’t clear, how will the implementation not be?

If its a good idea, follow it – When populating a design space with early concepts, tangents and ideas abound. These may diverge significantly from the original concept you thought of, but in the creative process this is perhaps the nature of ideas. As when balancing all the elements, hidden parameters and approaches appear. These are things you couldn’t perceive in your original constructs and perhaps hold a grain of something truly novel. If you don’t have a strict brief, let go and see where it leads.

Domain knowledge – when coming from a specialist field, such as audio, be wary of the perceived knowledge in users. Your domain knowledge and intellectual predispositions will guide your design space decisions. If you are not careful your ability to communicate to a wider audience will be doomed from the start, due to relying on existing interface metaphors that do not communicate effectively to new users. But if you focus the application to specific domains, these nuances can make it through a design process and be of use to the field more generally.

Concept Development: Possible Futures

A important concept in early development was the use of VR as a lense into imagined worlds. The work of Dunne and Raby on Speculative design was particularly persuasive. Their techniques include:

+ Fictional worlds

+ Cautionary tales

+ What if… scenarios

+ Counterfactual histories

+ Thought experiments

+ Reductio ad absurdum

+ Artefacts from the future

+ Pre-figurative futures

+ Small things big issues

+ Tell worlds rather than tell stories

These aspects are employed as alternative aesthetics that engage us in different ways, questioning technology, ideology, and technological vs social imagination


The Metaverse, as traditionally imagined, would be an unfiltered firehose of humanity. The Metaverse that people are actually trying to build would be, in a meaningful sense, a social network.  Most of its value is bringing people together socially, and letting them communicate with their friends and make new ones.  Putting everyone together into the same chaotic chatroom has less value than intelligently providing spaces where friends can hang out, as web-based social networks have proven. This concept would be engaged with a speculative frame in VR by posing the question of how algorithms would mediate our interaction and communications, with people and machines that are sharing the space.

http://lucidscape.com/ found this data visualisation quite stimulating, the debug view is quite attractive too

Jaap Drupsteen’s music visualisations are fantastic, particularly the one below was of interest at around 3:40 where the concrete structure is morphed into a twitching jittering mass of nodes. This was to be imagined as a transition of aesthetic to be employed in a VR experience to draw the users attention to the concepts of the experience.

Michael Chorost’s book World Wide Mind, increasing emotional communication. 

Virtual Reality Music pt 2: Interface and Instruments

This post is just mopping up some more interesting research and stimulus used in the development of a VR music interface. The items below range from literal transpositions of composition environments to more experimental concepts in music composition in immersive environments. 

The Pensato Fissure project has achieved wide recognition within dance music communities and internet publications for its immersive VR approach to performing and composing using Ableton live. The project has undergone many developments in interface and input methods. Project formed a Masters project in Design and is still currently active, the authors Showtime github is particularly useful for syncing with Ableton, it effectively reveals all possible Live Objects to another system, which enables rapid application development of music interfaces utilising the underlying power and flexibility of the Ableton Live API.

Of the research conducted in VR music and interaction, topics fall into some definable categories, though not comprehensive account of all research just some good exemplars: 

+ Controlling musical characteristics of pre-existing composition [1]

+ Mixer style control of spatial audio characteristics for pre-recorded sound sources, with optional control of effects [2] 

+ Virtual audio environment, multi-process 3D instruments [4, 5] 

+ Virtual instruments, virtual representations of instruments and synthesis control [3,6,7]

+ Virtual object manipulation with parameterised sound output [8,9]

Many of these implementations offer novel interaction methods coupled with creative feedback and visualisation. Many systems require considerable training and learning to be able to perform with it, though reportedly the basics of user control can be learned quite quickly. This presents a problem for the target audience of the Objects project, where more immediate control and enjoyment is required. Therefore a combination of musical composition control and spatial audio will be explored, using simplified musical interaction that can allow novice users to learn within the experience. Though the control method and interaction metaphors differ considerably from the work presented in [1] and [2].

[1]  Xavier Rodet, Jean-philippe Lambert, Thomas Gaudy, and Florian Gosselin. Study of haptic and visual interaction for sound and music control in the Phase project. International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, pages 109–114, 2005.

[2]  Wozniewski, Mike, Zack Settel, and J Cooperstock. A spatial interface for audio and music production. Digital Audio Effects (DAFx), pages 18–21, 2006.

[3]  Teemu Maki-patola, Juha Laitinen, Aki Kanerva, and Takala Takala. Experiments with virtual reality instruments. Proceedings of the 2005 international Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, pages 11–16, 2005.

[4]  Leonel Valbom and Aderito Marcos. Wave: Sound and music in an immersive environment. Computers & Graphics, 29(6):871–881, 2005.

[5]  F. Berthaut, M. Desainte-Catherine, and Martin Hachet. DRILE: an immersive environment for hierarchical live-looping. NIME ’10 Proceedings of the 2010 conference on New interfaces for musical expression, (Nime):192–197, 2010. 

[6] S. Gelineck, “Virtual Reality Instruments capable of changing Dimensions in Real-time,” 2005.

[7] A. Mulder, S. Fels, and K. Mase, “Design of Virtual 3D Instruments for Musical Interaction,” Graph. Interface, 1999.

[8] Mulder, A. (1996). Getting a GRIP on alternate controllers: Addressing the variability of gestural expression in musical instrument design. Leonardo music journal, 33-40.

[9] Mulder, A., Fels, S. S., & Mase, K. (1997). Mapping virtual object manipulation to sound variation. IPSJ Sig Notes97(122), 63-68.

Tangible Music Interfaces pt 2: Tables

Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs) combine control and representation within a physical artefact [1]. Interactive interfaces are based on tables, fiducials, tokens, computer vision, custom hardware and other bits. 

The AudioPad is a early musical interface table reportedly the first musical table interface. It uses proximity to control various actions so similar markers have multiple use cases. This is best understood by watching the video. 

Their blurb summarises it like so: 

"Audiopad is a composition and performance instrument for electronic music which tracks the positions of objects on a tabletop surface and converts their motion into music. One can pull sounds from a giant set of samples, juxtapose archived recordings against warm synthetic melodies, cut between drum loops to create new beats, and apply digital processing all at the same time on the same table. Audiopad not only allows for spontaneous reinterpretation of musical compositions, but also creates a visual and tactile dialogue between itself, the performer, and the audience."

Since then they have gone onto establishing a creative technology studio, doing alot of very interesting work 

Though somewhat stating the obvious, tangible interaction in music is refreshing addition to the spectrum of sonic control possibilities. Just the act of not sitting in front of a traditional screen can allow you to sway and react to the music more freely. This then increases your engagement while also focussing yourself on the task of fresh manipulations. A key feature of this abstracted objectified interface is the process of engaged learning. As objects have intrinsic physical affordances, the control space can be explored in a natural trial and error method. While engaged activity is important for learning so too are periods of disengaged reflection. A table allows this as you can simply step back and observe.

One of the most widely known tangible music tables is that of reactable. The Reactable is built upon a tabletop interface, which is controlled by manipulating tangible acrylic pucks on its surface. By putting these pucks on the Reactable’s translucent and luminous round surface, by rotating them and connecting them to each other, performers can combine different elements like synthesizers, effects, sample loops or control elements in order to create a unique and flexible composition [2]. An interesting revelation came from the creators of reactable, namely that  music performance and control can constitute an ideal source of inspiration and test bed for exploring novel ways of interaction, especially in highly complex, multidimensional and continuous interaction spaces such as the ones present when browsing huge multimedia databases. This type of interaction involves searching in complex, hyperpopuladed and multi-dimensional spaces, often looking for unknown and probably not single targets. In these types of “fuzzy interaction” environments, exploration can follow infinite paths, results can hardly be totally right or wrong, and the evaluation metrics can become so unclear, that joyful and creative use may become one of the essential assets [3].

Key design criteria are essential for not turning these interfaces into pretty messes. Sheridan et al offer the following advice in the design of performative tangible interaction [4], systems should be:

1 Intuitive – allow people to quickly grasp an understanding of the basic elements of the interaction, rather than being aimed at expert performers.
2 Unobtrusive – allow the public to carry on their normal activities if they choose to.
3 Enticing – encourage spontaneous interaction by passers-by without any, or very little, instruction.
4 Portable – are lightweight and low power, and easily transported, set up and taken down.

5 Robust – can withstand, and recover from, a range of environmental conditions such as adverse weather and changeable lighting, and different forms of interaction.
6 Flexible – can be dynamically tailored to the environment in which they are deployed.

Key design criteria include: visibility, controllability, robustness and responsiveness. It is theorised that if guidelines are followed and systems are engineered correctly such interfaces allow novice users to quickly learn the performance frame and be able to enjoy creative experiences with the device. Which is nice. Posing design questions in terms of the performance frame (technical skills, wittingness, interpretive abilities) and witting transitions can drive design decisions and maintain a balance between the technology and performance. 

Though working in pure VR for the current project, such design studies and artefacts, inform the nature of how enjoyable ‘fun’ interaction could be shaped. Within a VR environment every array of possibilities are conceivable, but when interacting with music, many of these possibilities must be culled. The ability to create new custom environments based around tangible interaction but free from certain physical restraints (just annoying ones like gravity) allow for creation of seemingly tangible interactions, tangible in terms of interacting with objects rather than a physical interaction. Though a major problem still exists, namely that the physical link presented in tangible interaction creates a sensory flow of information that can guide decisions for the user. Without a haptic feedback channel, will VR ‘tangible’ music interfaces just fall down? I hope not.


[1] B. Ullmer and H. Ishii, “Emerging frameworks for tangible user interfaces,” IBM Syst. J., vol. 39, no. 3.4, pp. 915–931, 2000.

[2] S. Jordà, G. Geiger, M. Alonso, and M. Kaltenbrunner, “The reacTable,” Proc. 1st Int. Conf. Tangible Embed. Interact. – TEI ’07, p. 139, 2007.

[3] S. Jordà and G. Geiger, “The reacTable: exploring the synergy between live music performance and tabletop tangible interfaces,” … Embed. Interact., 2007.

[4] J. Sheridan and N. Bryan-Kinns, “Designing for Performative Tangible Interaction,” vol. 1, pp. 288–308, 2008.