Here's a new video of an agile-looking robot, iCub, playing the theremin. The audio output of the theremin is fed back to the robot to enable it to make real-time pitch adjustments. It certainly does a better job than cats, eh?
iCub isn't the first 'bot to belt a tune on a 'min... Here are a few other earlier attempts:
And for good measure, here's the project I worked on with fellow grad students back in the day.
While all of these make for fun demos, the fact remains that none of them even come close to Clara Rockmore's level of proficiency with the theremin. I'm sure that with enough effort, the technical ability of any of these robots could be improved dramatically. But could any of them ever perform with the soulful grace of a human thereminist? Would we want them to?
We all know how hard it is to play the theremin well. In addition to steady hands, you need to have either perfect pitch or at least very strong relative pitch capabilities. Making it even harder, the actual placement of notes in space changes subtly with humidity, air temperature, the temperature of the components inside the theremin, and how it happens to be tuned on a particular day. All these challenges make the theremin one of the most difficult instruments in the world to play well.
This is where augmented reality comes in.
Now, as a theremin player, imagine a "trainer" device that uses augmented reality to help you find notes in 3D space. You'd just walk up to your theremin, tune it as you wish, and then play the lowest to highest note to teach the device where each note lies in space. As you play, the stereo cameras and position sensor track your hand and finger movements relative to the pitch and volume antennas. A heads-up display shows you the pitch of the note you're currently playing. In "training" mode, the device could actually track the distance between your hand and the position of the next note and then overlay in 3D space a "target" point for you to aim towards.
Augmented reality concepts have been around for a long time, but with recent developments like Google Glass, the technology is starting to become much more accessible. Glass certainly looks interesting, but so far it only includes a single camera and no position sensors. This means it cannot tell where your hand is in space.
Now, Meta, a startup coming from minds at Columbia University, might just be creating the type of device we're looking for to help take theremin playing to the next level. Their concept device includes 3D stereo screens and a built-in Kinect-like device with multiple cameras for gesture recognition. Here's a quick teaser video from their website:
This is all imaginary and vapor-ware at the moment, but we're not far from the day when devices like this are readily available and in use for every-day applications of all sorts. Current Meta prototypes appear to be bulky and probably won't make a theremin player look much "cooler"... but this is just the start of things to come. Surely if this catches on, technology will come along to make it less bulky and maybe even fashionable. Make it fully portable, and you wouldn't even need a theremin (yes, I said that)... it could just track your hands in space and generate sounds with a software synthesizer on the fly.
Tunable by Affinity Blue is a new tone generator / pitch detection app that is well suited to theremin players. Just turn it on and set it in front of your theremin, and Tunable starts showing you how close you are to pitch-perfect playing. Use it in practice sessions to improve your accuracy or plug your pitch preview jack into it for help during live performances. Tunable's clear and large display is easy to see in your peripheral vision as you play.
In addition to pitch detection, Tunable can generate reference notes and chords which can be very helpful while practicing intervals on the theremin. It also features a metronome with visual flash if you don't want to hear beats over your music.
Noted "Theremingenieur" Thierry Frenkel just posted this video of his new theremin cello design on his Facebook page. This follows his recent audio sample teaser posts on Soundcloud. The tone of this instrument, especially in the lower registers is simply amazing. Thierry walks you through each of the controls of the instrument and demonstrates how it is played. Thierry's design features some unique improvements that make it much more playable than its historic predecessors.
While you're watching, see if you can find and name all the different theremin varieties in the background.