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December 28, 2005

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Circuit Bent

You are looking at the new remote control for my computer. When I read a while back that the xBox controllers are just USB devices with a funny plug, I knew eventually I'd be buying one, even though I don't own Microsoft's jumbo-sized console (nor do I feel any particular urge to do so). Much to my surprise when I picked up a used wireless Pelican pad, I also discovered that the same programmer who reverse-engineered the xBox controller drivers had created an effective key-mapper for Windows, including mouse control. I've been looking for one of those for years.

I don't play console games on my PC, and I don't really want to. What I can use the Pelican to accomplish (when it works, because apparently it isn't really the most reliable hardware) is to run my .mp3 player, along with my DVD player and occasional light web browsing. That sounds pretty trivial, but the ability to move around my playlist while the computer is locked, or to pause a movie from across the room (my PC is my only DVD player right now) is uncommonly handy. It's cheaper than a "real" wireless computer remote, and all it took was some soldering.

This is probably how hardcore circuit-benders start. Circuit-bending is the repurposing of everyday electronics for new tasks, often musical--Speak N' Spells that act like synths, Furbys that sing as a chorus, and keyboards that don't really key any more. My xBox pad doesn't do anything near as complex, or require anything near as much skill. But now I've started thinking about new applications for it, just with software. There's a program called Rejoice that controls midi instruments with a joystick--with the dual thumbsticks, could I create a virtual theremin? Could I run a drum machine, even down to individual drums (kick on the triggers, snare/toms on one stick, and hat/cymbals on the other, with samples on the buttons)? What about a synth? And perhaps most interesting, because the gamepad has become pretty a widely accessible control mechanism, could I just hand it to an audience member and invite them to join the show?

Ever since I started working on Electroplankton as a musical tool, I've become more and more curious about using games to redefine the relationship of performers, instruments, and audiences. After all, I could probably give someone a 30-second tutorial in the Luminaria or Lumiloop, and then turn them loose for a jam. There used to be a band called Dog Talk that would pass out percussion instruments during its shows, so that everyone could be a part of the music. If my experimentation works out, audience members for the Four String Riot may be able to do the same, but with a circuit bent twist. If you were there, would you join in?

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