When you hear the tagline, “There’s an app for that,” you may not think that ever refers to genuine human connection. For musician and computer scientist Ge Wang, however, he prefers “those cases when technology takes a back seat to the human proceedings.”
In a recent talk at the MIT Museum, “The Art of Designing Electronic Music,” CAST Visiting Artist Ge Wang, Assistant Professor at Stanford University in the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), discussed the spectrum of his work in instrument building, computer programming and app design, and expounded on Ben Schneiderman’s idea that “the old computing is about what computers can do, the new computing is about what people can do.”
Eran Egozy (MIT Alumnus, Co-Founder of Harmonix and Visiting Lecturer in Music & Theater Arts) invited Wang to MIT to visit his students in 21M.359 Interactive Music Systems and to participate in the Second Fridays program at the MIT Museum, where Wang discussed such projects as ChucK (the open-source programming language he created for real-time sound synthesis and music creation), PLOrk (Princeton Laptop Orchestra), SLOrk (Stanford Laptop Orchestra), MoPhO (Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra) and SMULE (a startup company exploring social music-making via mobile devices).
In the course of the evening, Ge Wang elaborated on creating an ensemble of meta-instruments for the laptop orchestras and how designing apps allows him to bring the laptop orchestra to a mass audience. He also delivered a lot of practical information, such as how to convert wooden IKEA salad bowls into speakers, and demonstrated some of his novel musical instruments, such as the “Joy of Chant,” which is made from–you guessed it—a joy-stick. This combination of practical advice and hands-on demo resonated with the MIT audience of makers, who during the Q&A seemed particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of creating a laptop orchestra; in fact, Erin Main, one of Eran Egozy’s students, was awarded a Director’s Grant from the MIT Council for the Arts by Susan Cohen, to help fund a laptop orchestra at MIT, The Tech Orchestra (TOrk).
Wang also spoke about the human element driving his work: “Technology doesn’t have to be in your face all the time. If you can create something with that spark of humanity, that’s great, and part of the key is to hide the technology. The first thing I want people to think about when they hear this Ocarina (an app which turns the iPhone into a flute), is not that it’s cool technology…. I want you to think, ‘hey, there’s someone out there who’s blowing into their iphone, who, like me, paid $1 for this app.’ That’s the human angle, and there’s something magical in that.” He shared some poignant user feedback to illustrate how technology can promote human interaction and even “create calm.”
A U.S. soldier, using Ocarina, writes the following:
“This is my peace on earth. I am currently deployed in Iraq, and hell on earth is an everyday occurrence. The few nights I may have off I am deeply engaged in this app. The globe feature that lets you hear everybody else in the world playing is the most calming art I have ever been introduced to. It brings the entire world together without politics or war. It is the EXACT opposite of my life.”
Similarly, in 2011, a woman in Japan created a choir of thousands using Sing, a global karaoke app, to bring cheer and solace to the earthquake victims with their rendition of “Lean on Me.”
Wang asserts that such testimonials made him think differently about using technology to create musical instruments. Citing the father of ubiquitous computing, Mark Weiser, Wang asserts, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”