Sunday, 22 February 2015

Kris Halpin and his magic Mi.Mu gloves

Handle with motion and emotion

On a wet Monday on a Tamworth industrial estate, I'm chatting with Kris Halpin, and trying to digest some pretty incredible developments. I've known Kris for about five years. He was directly responsible for one of the most widely read posts I've ever put up on this blog, so I owe him. That post was on steps to score airplay, for local musicians; there's a link at the bottom of this post. Kris is a very accomplished muso. And now, Kris is one of a very select few – 15 all told - to be chosen to test and develop Mi.Mu gloves

These are mind-boggling things. They open up doors.

Mi.Mu gloves. Whaaat?

What exactly are these things? Well – take a close look first. Cyborg city, right?

These are gloves that bristle with assignable controls which can trigger any sound or effect the musician wishes. Throw a particular hand shape, one thing happens; clench a fist, get a second result of your choice; point, get yet a third, and so on. 

On top of that, the gloves have spatial awareness built in, with motion sensor and gyroscopic tools. If you twist your hand one way, you can do one thing; sweep your arms wide open, you do another.

All this is pretty amazing. But it's not just the technical possibilities that interest me. I love new tech when it makes lots of things easier. But I especially love new tech when good people get to grips with it and do really interesting things. The snag, of course, is that technical empowerment is not guaranteed to create works of genius: just look at any social media page. I'm not interested in the mundane made slicker, and much new tech simply shovels highly colourful baubles of mediocrity at us at an increasing rate.

A bit of history

       The great Leon Theremin with his invention
So – about the gloves. Remember the Theremin? Ever seen someone play with one? It's gesture-controlled music. It works by manipulating a magnetic field. The results are eerie. It was hugely popular in fifties scifi movies. It's a fascinating story in itself. And the Moog synthesiser could be said to be a direct descendant. 

But Mi.Mu gloves go to a whole new level. Firstly, they are configurable: they can be made to do anything you can do with a midi controller and sampling kit. Secondly, they can free the artist up, on stage, completely. Thirdly, and this is what I really think is fantastic, they can allow a performer's creativity to find expression irrespective of that performer's physical ability. Of course, that takes us back to that whole baubles of mediocrity thing – there's no point in being slick and flash if what you put out is empty and vacuous.

21st century possibilities

This is enormously, massively interesting stuff. It has huge implications, no matter what creative direction you take. Kris Halpin, one of fifteeen musicians testing these gloves, is a great musician. Five years ago, he was one of the many fine local musos to be featured on the Pilot Project, which sought to document new and interesting musicians in the West Midlands. But lately his body has been letting him down; he has a disability that is starting to have an impact. And that adds yet another dimension to the project.
Kris: I've got cerebral palsy. It's affecting my guitar playing - I have been struggling over the past two years with playing instruments. Before, it never really affected my musicianship that much. When I was a teenager, I was into that Steve Vai thing. I was into being a guitar wizard. Now, my condition is starting to have an impact.

Ironically, before I switched my recorder on, we'd been talking about the ageing process, and how, in my case, it's been affecting my increasingly elderly vocal chords. That sort of thing hits everybody. We'd both seen heroes onstage who weren't quite what they used to be.

But look, there's a loss of ability – we were just talking about that – and that happens to everyone as they age. But that must feel horrible, if you can't do what you used to do?
Kris: It's pretty scary at my age. I kept asking: 'Why is this happening?' From a medical point of view, they were scratching their heads a bit. I'd been talking about this online, and I knew Drake Music, who work with disabled musicians and new technology – I'd been involved with them, doing a few bits. They'd taken things to the limit with something called the Sound Beam, which turns gestures into midi data, so you can get more sounds from it. But it was still pretty crude. Through Drake Music I'd got to know Gawain Hewitt, their music tech person. And they were talking to Imogen Heap.

Imogen Heap is the driving force behind the MiMu glove?
Kris: Yes, and quite rightly, they thought that this was incredibly accessible technology. Imogen had thought about this from the point of view of being in the flow, and being intuitive. One of the problems she wanted to solve is that electronic music is not always that interesting live. It might sound great – but you're watching somebody on a fader or a launchpad, pretty static. If you could do something more... flowing.

Spot-on! I always think electronica has to be dressed up on stage, otherwise it looks pretty boring. But I love this notion of using your body to play. Musicians can be as visual as you like if they can move around.
Kris:  Yes. You can map the area you work in, using Kinect. So you can move around different areas of your stage and play something completely different.

What - like moving stage right and being your own brass section?
Kris: I can put my imaginary drumkit on the left, violins at right... and I can change all that within the gloves. I can be looping these things, and do it all from the gloves. 

This is head-spinning stuff. The tech is brilliant. But as we said at the start, it has to be liberating
Kris: And that's a big question that we've been dealing with. I went to Imogen's – amazing in itself – to learn more. They were looking for fifteen pairs to put out into the wild, to test things, if you like. And I was going to ask if there was anything they could do for people like me. Struggling with my guitar-playing. Gigs had got very stressful for me.

That has to have hurt
Kris:  It really was hard. I thought if anyone can help me, it would be Gawain. And he said – you should have the gloves. That was it. It took off very quickly. I'd been a big fan of Imogen Heap's early noughties stuff. That voice, those beats – I was blown away. Fast forward to now, I'm sat at her house drinking beer! We hung out for the weekend, discussing what we were going to do.

But that question of doing something flashy but essentially mundane, or actually doing something new...?
Kris: One of Imogen's points, and she's absolutely right, is that we want to use the gloves to do something that can't be done without them. Look: I can be in a space, and I want to play bass, and I want to get a new swelling bass sound, and I want to add a loop. I've got two hands. By the time I've done that on my mixer or my launchpad, where am I going to go? With this, I can create control within axes – how I rotate my wrist, for example, how I swing my arm.
And, yes, technology should not be used for the mundane, it should allow unique things. But from our point of view – we do want to achieve the mundane as well! What if my hands deteriorate and I can't play the piano anymore? How do I present a song like Hand At Emotion, my big piano piece I filmed at John Mostyn's? It's a mundane task, but we need to fulfil it.

                          Hand at Emotion: A vid of Kris in 2011, shot at Highbury Studio

If it's you controlling everything...
Kris: Yes. How do you get beyond pressing play? How do we make the gloves pay some chords – which is quite simple?.

All the time we've been talking, sitting in Kris' studio. Kris has been fiddling with the gloves, and checking that they are nicely interfaced with the banks of kit he's set up. Then, he's up on his feet, a beatboxing drummer. Mesmerising. Watch this. 

Where to from here?

Now, I'm not a musician, but I am a fan. I admire craft and skill – whether it's in musos, or in the creation of something as potentially ground-breaking as this. So it's mind-boggling to see the steps being taken. I spent an hour watching Kris play with his kit, and I got an overwhelming sense of horizons expanding. I can't begin to imagine what all this has meant for Kris, and the other 14 early adopters.

We've been here before, or course. There's been a host of musical inventions which arrived, flowered and bit the dust. Remember the gizmo? Remember when synthesisers took up an entire room? I just feel that the team developing all this have their heads screwed on differently, and that's almost certainly a very good thing.

Imogen Heap is out in front on this – she's been working on it longest, so you'd expect that. But the glorious thing is that we have 15 creative, sensitive talents, all over the world, taking risks and large adventurous steps to push this project forward. Kris is one of that cohort of talents. He has imagination and passion, and solid tech chops. Over and above that, Kris is looking at this tool from a wholly different, additional perspective: that of empowering people to overcome their disabilities. Drake Music are assisting his experimental steps by funding the gloves, which is a magnificent gesture. 

I can't wait to see what he comes up with. Here's another taster.


Kris Halpin
Playhaus Studios
Mi.Mu gloves 
Drake Music
Imogen Heap

See also

Getting your music played at radio. A post inspired by a question from Kris.

See more posts on music and musicians and infrastructure and tech on Radio To Go


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1 comment:

Drake Music said...

Thanks for this great article, we are very excited about the possibilities these gloves could open up for disabled musicians and are loving working with the very talented Kris on it. Our mission is to open up access to music for disabled people and we hope that with our input to the development these gloves coul do that in the future. Thanks for your support, we will share the post on our facebook & twitter now.