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Great Balls of Fun

Jul 19 2016

by Neil Stevenson

The name Moog conjures up images of retro-future machines and space-age sounds. In the mid-60s, Bob Moog created the synthesizers that unleashed an era of electronic experimental music. Today, as a tribute to Bob, we have Moogfest, a gathering of musicians, DJs, performance artists, and technologists. This year’s performers ranged from Gary Numan and Grimes to a classical guitarist having his toenails painted by a cybernetically-augmented accomplice, and an 8-hour DJ set during which the audience slept in provided beds. 

What was IDEO’s contribution? Giant beach balls. But not for the beach. More like magical floating orbs that made music when you touched them.

“We wanted to build an instrument with play as an interface,” said creative director Peter Hyer. “An interactive environment in which anyone can play music without giving it a thought.”

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How do they work? Check out our IDEO Labs post for a technical deep-dive. Here’s the layperson’s version: The team fitted the balls with sensors that mapped the force of the impact to notes. Those notes were then matched to an algorithmically-generated backing track. The whole experience was prototyped at San Francisco’s Exploratorium before being transferred to the festival in North Carolina.

Lead engineer and composer Aaron Soloway couldn’t help but smile as he watched festival attendees interact with the balls. “Whether it was a huge bearded dude into modular synths, or a 5-year-old who just wanted to hit things, everyone was into it.”

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For Hyer, that universal spirit of play was key. “It created an opportunity for people to connect with music that was unexpected and in the spirit of the festival,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s about celebrating the convergence of art and engineering. That’s what that Bob Moog was all about.”

Moog hit the big-time when his company started producing portable versions of his giant synthesizers (aka the Minimoog). For now however, the beach ball synth will remain enormous.

 
  • Neil Stevenson

    Executive Portfolio Director, IDEO Chicago

    Neil Stevenson is on a mission to understand creativity and find new ways to enable and encourage it in others. He's particularly interested in how the slowly-evolving human brain interacts with the rapidly-changing tech environment we live in, and the strange and wonderful new behaviors that emerge as a result.

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