TouchKeys electronic piano plays by sensors

It was only a few months ago that we highlighted the O-Bow, an electronic violin that plays by sensors – many different sound effects can be created and manipulated (for example, rotating the bow to create a vibrato effect). Well, here comes the TouchKeys piano.


Whereas the first instrument was developed by Dylan Menzies at De Montfort University in Leicester, the modified keyboard has been developed by a team of technicians, composers and musicians, led by Andrew McPherson at Queen Mary, University of London.

Essentially, the keys all have sensors to bring the sounds and response of a string instrument to the piano, allowing you to tickle the ivories in a way they have never been tickled before.

Jack Flanagan of New Scientist writes:

Each key is fitted with a set of 26 sensors that work much like a smartphone’s touchscreen to detect touch. The sensors know exactly where a finger has been placed, letting the player experiment with sounds. For example, waggling the finger on a key creates the sound of vibrato, often heard from a violin. Sliding it up and down the length of the key bends pitch, like a rock guitarist does. When I tried it out I found the movements intuitive. The vibrato was easy enough, but the pitch slide was a little harder to pick up.

Algorithms prevent the keyboard from going out of pitch or being triggered unintentionally, such as when pianists move their fingers to prepare for future notes or change hand position. The finger waggle to create the vibrato sound only works when your finger moves fast enough, for example. The team are launching the keyboard on crowdfunding website Kickstarter later this month to raise funds to commercialise it.

TouchKeys is not the only new concept for piano-playing. A design called the Roli Seaboard uses soft, squashy keys that you can bend or twist to create unusual new sounds. McPherson says he is a “big fan” of Seaboard but that while that design is trying to reimagine piano-playing in its entirety, Touchkeys keeps the classic keyboard design intact.

“I’m trying to preserve the feel of the keyboard so an experienced pianist can pick it up right away, while adding a range of new expressive techniques,” he says. “Ultimately we are both looking at the same musical ideas: continuous expressive control under the fingertips. We’re just coming at it from different angles.”

Apparently, to test the system, the team gave eight pianists a musical score to play on the new keyboard and it was found they were able to play it with little practice (triggering incorrect vibrato under 10 per cent of the time).

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See also: Playing an AirHarp, Leap Motion-style


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