SciTechBlog
April 15, 2010

'Emotichair' helps people feel the music

Posted: 11:19 AM ET

Say you're watching a scary movie. The tension builds. The villain is about to grab someone. There's no dialogue, just ominous music.

If you can't hear, all you get is a caption that may say something like "scary music playing."

"Of course, that's not very scary at all, and, in fact, it probably takes away from the experience," said Carmen Branje, a researcher at the Center for Learning Technology in Toronto, Canada.

That makes it hard to really get an emotional sense of what's going on.

Cue a possible solution: Find a way to make people, especially those who can't hear, actually feel the music.

That's the idea behind a prototype called the Emotichair, which Branje and colleague Maria Karam demonstrated this week at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference here in Atlanta, Georgia.

Emotichair is basically just a camping chair fitted with speakers that play at different frequencies, vibrating a person's upper back with high pitches and the bottom of a person's thighs with lower ranges.

All of the emotional content of a song may not come across in these vibrations, Branje concedes, but he says much of it does.

"You experience the play between the different elements of the music," he said. "And what we've found is people were able to tell the emotion of the piece" just by feeling it vibrate their back and legs.

Karam, who said the Emotichair has been 4 years and $500,000 in development, said the chair essentially makes a person hear with their body.

"We're just turning your skin into a cochlea," she said. "Your skin is going to be like an ear."

The Emotichair concept will be available for purchase starting in September. One chair costs between $500 and $1,000, and the chairs likely will be tested in two Canadian movie theaters in coming months, she said.

One big problem with the chair: It's super noisy. Low-quality speakers create the vibrations on the back of the chair, and they buzz and bark while the chair is in use. That could be a problem in movie theater or concert settings, although Karam said the chair has been used at acoustic concerts with no problem.

What do you think? Does the chair sound useful, particularly for deaf people or those who are hard of hearing? Or is it just an expensive gimmick?

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Filed under: Music • technology


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April 13, 2010

Learn to play the piano without trying

Posted: 11:13 AM ET

Atlanta, Georgia - Thad Starner, a pony-tailed Georgia Tech professor, started a talk at an emerging technology conference here with a question for the audience:

"How many of you want to play a musical instrument but don't because it takes too much time to practice?"

Several people raised their hands.

"Yep, I'm the same way."

His solution? A yellow and black glove, stylish enough for Michael Jackson, and fitted with buzzers just above the knuckles.

The glove is designed to teach people to play uber-simple piano licks while they're doing other tasks - or, in other words, while they're not trying to learn.

To this point, Starner wore the glove during his lecture. The buzzers in the glove vibrated his fingers one at a time, teaching him the piano fingering for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." He wore an earbud that played the simple melody in one of his ears, in synch with the finger stimulations.

In trials, Starner said this kind of background learning works rather well. In the most recent test, subjects completed reading comprehension tests while wearing the glove. Nine of 16 of them were able to play the melody perfectly.

Starner said he'd never done this sort of while-giving-a-presentation test of the piano glove before. At the end of his talk, he played Beethoven's simple song without trouble.

After the presentation, Starner said the true value of his project may not be in learning the piano but in rehabbing patients with brain and spinal cord injuries. He said he worked with a quadriplegic man, in his 70s, whose hands were so clawed up that he couldn't button his shirt.

The finger-stimulating glove helped him get that ability back, he said.

And he learned a little piano in the process.

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Filed under: computers • multi-tasking • Music


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April 8, 2010

Geek Out!: M.C. Frontalot talks nerdcore hip-hop, geekery

Posted: 02:33 PM ET

M.C. Frontalot, the founder of “nerdcore” hip-hop, has gathered a respectable online following injecting video games, Internet culture and all things geeky into a genre too often reserved for chest-thumping swagger.

On his new album, “Zero Day,” released this week, Frontalot – nee Damian Hess – name-drops Dungeons & Dragons, humor-laced multi-user game Kingdom of Loathing and friend/geek icon Wil Wheaton – with guest appearances from “I’m a PC” guy John Hodgman and former Soul Coughing front man Mike Doughty.

Geek Out! caught up with him during his current tour supporting the album.

Q: On “Zero Day,” it seems like as you go through, almost every song celebrates something genre-specific – whether it’s the Kingdom of Loathing song or the Dungeons & Dragons song or the memes like “First World Problem.” Did you set out to do that intentionally?

A: These things just all kind of shake out the way that they’re going to. I wish that I had the time and the control at my disposal to sit down and make an album that winds the themes together in a purposeful way. When I’m writing, it’s really just everything that’s on my mind or pulling at me. That’s the shape the album takes; it ends up being pretty organic.

Q: So, there’s probably no concept album or rock opera coming in the near future?

A: Well, two things I do want to do are a concept album and a children’s album. Maybe I’ll combine the two of those and do ‘The Epic Tale of Mr. Wiggly Piggly’ or something. But, one of these days I will get it together to approach writing a batch of songs as one album’s worth of material instead of a ton of 3 to 5-minutes of moments in musical time.

Q: Is there anything in particular you’re geeking out over right now – a game or book or music or anything along those lines?

A: I haven’t had a lot of time to read or absorb media lately because we’ve been working so hard on the record and we’ve been running all over and doing shows from the minute I got it in the can. Now, we’re launching this tour for a couple of months … . I’ve been geeking out over ideas of what nerd superstars I could more involve and collaborate with instead of just asking them to show up for a couple of seconds on my album … something we could really flesh out together and have both of us equally involved.

That led me to think the other night while I was at Jonathan Coulton’s concert at PAX that maybe I would hit him up to do a split EP with me where we would do some kind of a project … like I would come up with all the ideas for the songs he would write and he would come up with all the ideas for the songs I would write for it. Give each other homework – call it “The Homework EP” or something like that.

Q: You’re just off of [gaming convention] PAX and right before that was South by Southwest. What were those experiences like? Certainly you would think those are crowds that would lean toward nerdcore.

A: Both of them were great … . There are two parts of South-By – there’s interactive week and music week. It’s a massive shift that happens where you see all the nerds walking around with their faces in their iPhones or whatever give way to all these sauntering hipsters who wear sunglasses inside. It’s my people during Interactive and that’s when we did most of my music. Music week, I’m just running around anonymously, trying to absorb some bands.

Then I go to PAX [Penny Arcade Expo, a gaming convention], which is the extreme version of what interactive week would be like. It’s an absolute fantasy zone for me where fans know who I am and I can’t even walk around the convention center without having to stop and take pictures with people every couple of seconds. It’s as if I was in a much more famous band.

I would get recognized on the street … which is just not something that happens to me in day-to-day life very often. These kinds of environments where that happens … I don’t know whether they’re salve for the soul or just inflation for my head. Maybe a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

Q: Do you think that nerdcore says something about the universal appeal of hip-hop – that you have people rapping for whom it would be ridiculous to try to pretend to be a bad-ass from the streets?

A: There is that attitude that seems to have become eventually mandatory in hip-hop that you have to insist and stake everything on your claim that you are the valid representation of what hip-hop is supposed to be like. But a lot of my favorite rappers have found a way to abandon that notion without having to call themselves a geek or without having to be uncool.

Mos Def doesn’t have to spend a lot of time trying to convince people that he’s not fronting. MF Doom, Busdriver, Kool Keith – there are lots of folks I love who aren’t like that. And there’s always been a side of hip-hop that isn’t like that.

I don’t want to position myself like I’ve found this flaw in hip-hop and I’ve satirized it. That’s definitely not my angle. But I was trying to invert something – like, “Here’s this M.C. who fronts a lot. He has to kind of trick you into thinking that you’re looking at a rapper.”

Q: “Nerd” and “geek” – for you, what’s the difference between those two terms?

A: My idea of it is that “nerd” is more broadly anyone who’s natural abilities to fit in socially are very much compromised and, thus, any nerd is pretty easy to identify when you interact with him or her … .

A geek, on the other hand, is someone who has a lot of specific knowledge on any topic … I think you can have a geek who’s not really a nerd in any way. Even people like greasers who work in garages and know everything there is to know about the internal combustion engine – that’s a form of geekery.

There are a lot of ways to geek out over almost any topic without really engaging in what I think of as nerdery. They might think they’re even cooler because they’re [for example] a music geek, but when they start talking about their topic of geekish interest, the regular folks’ eyes glaze over. That’s how you can tell.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Music • pop culture


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March 23, 2010

Geek Out!: Trailer for Weird Al 'biopic' up on Funny or Die

Posted: 11:59 AM ET
 
 
Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.
 
Remember when "Weird Al" Yankovic hooked up with Madonna?

Or the booze-fueled meltdown that nearly ended his career?

Yeah ... neither do we. But that didn't keep all of those titillating moments out of a movie trailer for "Weird:  The Al Yankovic Story."

The spoof video was posted early Tuesday on the comedy site Funny or Die.

Watch the video.

"Finally, my life story is being made into a major motion picture!" Yankovic wrote early Tuesday morning on his Twitter feed - @alyankovic.

The trailer spans Yankovic's fictional life, from being busted as a child for hiding copies of "Accordion Player" magazine under his mattress to the drunken tirade aimed at his bandmates - a staple of any rock star's life story.

"Nobody wants to hear a parody song, when they can hear the real thing for the same price," Yankovic says, playing a smarmy record-company executive.

"Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul plays Al himself in a star-studded cast that includes Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen, Olivia Wilde and comedian Patton Oswalt as Dr. Demento, the host of the syndicated novelty-song show on which Weird Al got his start.

Founded by actor Will Ferrell and others, Funny or Die has emerged as a platform for famous actors to cut loose - filming one-off projects they probably couldn't get approved anywhere else.

Sadly, there are no plans for an actual movie on the life of the man who brought us classics like "Eat It," "Dare to Be Stupid" and "White & Nerdy."

But if he can spoof the songs of famous pop stars, why not follow them into the biopic world too?

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Internet • Movies • Music • online video • pop culture


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March 16, 2010

SXSW: Spotify isn't coming to the U.S. just yet

Posted: 07:36 PM ET

The much-talked-about European music service called Spotify is not available in the United States just yet.

But the founder of Spotify - which lets people stream music from a vast online database for free or at a minimal price - indicated on Tuesday in a keynote address at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, that the service will hit the U.S. in early 2010, as planned.

"The most important thing for us when it comes to the U.S. launch is the fact that we want to build the best product that we can," said Daniel Ek, the 26-year-old CEO of the company. "Here you have to strike deals with almost 5,000 different publishers and then the collecting societies and then the labels, but the big thing for us now is just working on the next generation of Spotify and getting it out there."

Some SXSW attendees had hoped Ek would debut the service at the annual technology conference here.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times following his keynote, Ek admitted falling behind a schedule to debut Spotify in in the U.S. "We've always said we wanted to launch in early 2010. We still hope that will be the case," Ek told the Times. "That said, I don't think it matters for us if it's two or three months later. The U.S. is the world's biggest market. And to use an American phrase, we really want to hit it out of the park."

During Tuesday's keynote, Ek demonstrated a version of Spotify on an Android-based Sony Ericsson phone that's expected to hit the U.S. market this year.  He pulled up a South by Southwest-themed playlist, and a mini-player appeared on the phone’s screen that let him play, fast-forward and rewind songs.  The audience seemed to be impressed with the look of the interface and quality of the audio.

He also described future implementation strategies around the increase of social features and collaborative playlists.

"Music is the most social object," Ek said. "We want to make music like water."

Spotify has more than 7 million users.  Of those, about 320,000 pay a monthly fee to subscribe to its premium service, up from 250,000 last year, Ek said.

Spotify is a downloadable client for Windows and Mac users that lets you search, browse and stream a deep collection of music.  The service has become popular in recent years in Europe for its speed and the fact that some of its services are free and the rest are relatively inexpensive.  Due to music licensing restrictions, it is currently only available in United Kingdom, Finland, France, Norway, Spain and Sweden.  It is available both as a premium monthly subscription service and as a free version supported by advertising. (For more details on the service, check out this FAQ).

The arrival of Spotify in U.S. would add to an increasingly crowded online music space.

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Filed under: mobile phones • Music


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March 15, 2010

One recipe for rock-band success? Video games

Posted: 03:24 PM ET

Matt Drenik, frontman for hard-rock band Lions, has an easy formula for worldwide exposure - meet an employee from a video game company, then get him drunk.

"We had a showcase here three years ago. He came and drank beer with us until 5 a.m.," said Drenik during a panel Monday at the South by Southwest Interactive conference. "Next thing we know, we have a contract to be on Guitar Hero III."

Having their song, "Metal Heavy Lady," on a game that has sold 13 million copies worldwide couldn't have come at a better time for the Austin, Texas-based rockers, who had recently been dropped from their record label.

It's part of a years-long effort by bands looking for ways to gain exposure at a time when mainstream radio stations have moved largely to safe, structured formats that don't leave much room for independent artists.

"It's very challenging now for certain bands like mine and others who are heavier riff-rock bands to kind of break out," he said. "Everybody knows the U.S. modern rock radio is pretty bad. They don't really spin a lot of good innovative bands anymore."

Lions was the only independent band on a game that featured the likes of Slash, from Guns 'n' Roses, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

Doug McCracken, of “Guitar Hero” creators Activision, said the obvious approach would be to try to pack games like his and rival “Rock Band” with “only artists that have sold X-number of records.”

But including an indie band, along with groups like a reunited Sex Pistols and death-rock icons Slayer, benefits the product by expanding its base, he said.

“From our perspective, we have a range of music so we can appeal to a bunch of different types of people,” McCracken said. We love that it adds to … the authenticity and credibility for our brands and also helps the artist.”

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Filed under: Games • Gaming • Music


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July 24, 2009

Your favorite music Web sites

Posted: 11:18 AM ET

Thanks to those of you who responded to my story about changes in the digital music scene.

I listed 10 Web sites where you can find new music. The story was pinned on the news that some formerlly illegal and shut-down sites - like KaZaA, Napster and possibly Pirate Bay - are clawing their way out of the grave in legal forms. It's all part of the Internet's shifting music scene. Streaming music is becoming more popular; buying it, less so.

Many readers chimed in with cool Web sites I didn't include. Here are a few of your favorites, from the story comments:

Amie Street: an indie download site where popularity determines price

Folk Alley: streams folk music

Slacker: one reader calls this "by far the best online streaming site I have seen so far"

Jango: radio-like streaming

LastFM: recommends music based on what you like

iTunes and Amazon: they were left off the CNN list because they're not new or changing, but they remain staples just the same

As always, thanks for the input!

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Filed under: Music


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May 20, 2009

DJ releases blank CD-R

Posted: 09:32 AM ET

Music producer Danger Mouse wants you to download his album illegally. He is even going to sell you the blank CD-R to burn your ill-gotten tracks.

The "Dark Night of the Soul" book with blank CD-R ships May 29th, and the album again raises questions about how Internet technology can be used to distribute music - and what is or isn't ethical about the process.

DJ Danger Mouse, who is half of the pop group Gnarles Barkley, began stepping on record label EMI's toes in 2004 when he utilized internet outlets to distribute his self-published "Gray Album," which mixed songs from Jay-Z and The Beatles.

EMI, who owned rights to The Beatles' content, attempted to block the album, but people online responded by creating "Gray Tuesday," an organized protest where participating Web sites posted the unlicensed songs for public download. Now EMI is again attempting to prevent Danger Mouse from releasing "Dark Night of the Soul," but he's not one to let a legal dispute keep music from his fans.

A spokesperson for the DJ said: "Danger Mouse remains hugely proud of 'Dark Night of the Soul' and hopes that people lucky enough to hear the music, by whatever means, are as excited by it as he is."

Danger Mouse is still releasing "Dark Night of the Soul," but instead of a 13-track album the case will include a 100-page book of David Lynch photographs and a blank CD-R that is labeled: 'For Legal Reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will.'

Legally, fans can hear music from "Dark Night of the Soul" streamed on NPR Music. I listened to it last night and was impressed, but will anyone buy this new album when the music is already freely available?

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Filed under: file sharing • Music • piracy


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January 7, 2009

Free your music

Posted: 05:11 PM ET

One of the most exciting tidbits from Tuesday’s MacWorld keynote for me was the announcement of the move toward DRM-free (digital rights managed) music on the iTunes store –- and, more interestingly, the ability to upgrade your current purchased music to a DRM-free format.

itunes

If you want to remove the DRM from your iTunes purchases, it's all or nothing.

As I’ve admitted before, I'm a fully entrenched Apple fanboy.  Thus my music player is an iPod and the music I've purchased online is from the iTunes store.  That is a very limited amount of my music –- as I never liked the prospect of “renting” my music, having it locked into a particular format –- especially when I could get the CD and rip it into the quality and format of my choice for my digital devices -– and have the ability to re-encode it if necessary.

So, how do I upgrade my music?  On Wednesday a link appeared on the iTunes store (in the "Quick Links" area in the upper left corner) that says just that: "Upgrade My Library." Clicking on it takes you to a screen that shows you how many songs are eligible for the upgrade.

In my case, it’s 233 songs (more than I thought), which includes about 15 albums, for a charge of $56.70.

Am I gonna do it?  Maybe, maybe not.  First off – it's an all or nothing deal — you can’t just pick your favorites and leave all the junk you bought to rot in the DRM wasteland.  Also, I have to agree with friends, colleagues and Internet commenters who think this should be free –- or at the very least cheaper -– with a bigger discount for larger libraries.  On the other hand, as one of my good friends pointed out, 30 cents is much cheaper than if you had to buy the whole thing again, like many of us did when updating our libraries from cassette or vinyl to CD.

So in the end, “Yay!” to the death of DRM on iTunes, and a resounding “meh” on the paying more to get my music in the way it should have been to begin with.  What are you guys gonna do?

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Filed under: Apple • DRM • Music


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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