Commentary proposed for NIME Reader
The fingerphone is my creative response to three umbridges: the waste and unsustainability of musical instrument manufacturing practices, the prevailing absence of long historical research to underwrite claims of newness in NIME community projects, and the timbral poverty of the singular, strident sawtooth wavefrom of the Stylophone – the point of departure for the fingerphone instrument design.
This paper is the first at NIME of my ongoing provocations to the community to enlarge what we may mean by “new” and “musical expression”. I propose a change of scale away from solipsistic narratives of instrument builders and players to cummunitarian accounts that celebrate plural agencies and mediations [Born]. The opening gesture in this direction is a brief historicization of the fingerphone instrument. Avoiding the conventional trope of just differentiating this instrument from its immediate predecessors to establish “newness”, the fingerphone is enjoined to two rich instrumental traditions, the histories of which are still largely unwritten: stylus instruments, and electrosomatophones. The potential size of this iceberg is signaled by citing a rarely-cited musical stylus project from 1946 instead of the usually cited projects of the 1970’s, e.g. Xanakis’s UPIC or the Fairlight CMI lightpen.
Electrosomatophones are electronic sounding instruments that integrate people’s bodies into their circuits. They are clearly attested in depictions from the eighteenth century of Stephen Gray’s “flying boy” experiments and demonstrations, where a bell is rung by electrostatic forces produced by electric charges stored in the body of a boy suspended in silks. Electrosomatophones appear regularly in the historical record from this period to the present day.
The production of Lee De Forest’s audion tube is an important disruptive moment because the vacuum tube provided amplification and electrical isolation permitting loud sounds to be emitted from electrosomatophones without the pain of correspondingly large currents running through the performer’s body. While the theremin is the electrosomatophone that has gained the most social traction, massification of electrosomatophone use began with the integration of capacitive multitouch sensing into cellphones–an innovation prefigured by Bill Buxton [Buxton] and Bob Boie’s [radio drum] inventions of the mid-1980’s.
Achieving the sustainable design properties of the fingerphone required working against the grain of much NIME practice, especially the idea of separating controller, synthesizer and loudspeaker into their own enclosures. Such a separation might have been economical at a time when enclosures, connectors and cables were cheaper than the electronic components they house and connect but now the opposite is true. Instead of assembling a large number of cheap, specialized monofunctional components, the fingerphone uses a plurifuctional design approach where materials are chosen, shaped and interfaced to serve many functions concurrently. The paper components of the fingerphone serve as interacting surface, medium for inscription of fiducials, sounding board and substrate for the electronics.
The first prototype fingerphone was built into a recycled pizza box. The version presented at the NIME conference was integrated into the poster used for the presentation itself. This continues a practice I initially using e-textiles for, the practice of choosing materials that give design freedoms of scale and shape instead of using rigid circuit boards and off-the-shelf sensors. This approach will continue to flourish and become more commonplace as printing techniques for organic semiconductors, sensors and batteries are massified.
The fingerphone has influenced work on printed loudspeakers by Jess Rowland and the sonification of compost by Noe Parker. Printed keyboards and speakers are now a standard application promoted by manufacturers of conductive and resistive inks.
In addition to providing builders with an interesting instrument design, I hope the fingerphone work will lead more instrument builders and players to explore the nascent field of critical organology, deepen discourse of axiological concerns in musical instrument design, and adduce early sustainability practices that ecomusicologists will be able to study.
The Paper FingerPhone: a case study of Musical Instrument Redesign for Sustainability
The Disassembled Stylophone
The Stylophone is a portable electronic musical instrument that
was commercialized in the 1970's and enjoyed a brief success primarily in the
UK. This is largely attributable to its introduction on TV by Rolf Harris, its
use in the song that launched David Bowie's career, "Space Oddity,"
and its appearance in a popular TV series "The Avengers". Three
million instruments were sold by 1975. A generation later the product was relaunched.
The artist "Little Boots" has prompted renewed interest in the
product by showcasing it in her hit recording "Meddle".
Mottainai! (What a waste!)
The Stylophone in its current incarnation is
wasteful in both its production and interaction design. The new edition has a
surprisingly high parts count, material use and carbon footprint. The limited
affordances of the instrument waste the efforts of most who try to learn to use
toy designers evaluate their products according to MTTC (Mean Time to Closet), and
by how many battery changes consumers perform before putting the instrument aside
. Some of these closeted
instruments reemerge a generation later when "old" becomes the new
"new"–but most are thrown away.
paper addresses both aspects of this waste by exploring a rethinking and
redesign of the Stylophone, embodied in a new instrument called the
The Stylophone was not the first stylus-based
musical instrument. Professor Robert Watson of the University of Texas built an
“electric pencil” in 1948 . The key elements for a
wireless stylus instrument are also present in the David Grimes patent of 1931  including conductive paper
and signal synthesis from position-sensing potentiometers in the pivots of the
arms of a pantograph. Wireless surface sensing like this wasn’t employed
commercially until the GTCO Calcomp Interwrite’s Schoolpad of 1981.
musical instruments like the Fingerphone with unencumbered surface interaction
were built as long ago as 1748 with the Denis d’Or of Václav Prokop
Interest in and development of such instruments continued with those of Elisha Gray
in the late 1800’s, Theremin in the early 1900’s, Eremeeff, Trautwein, Lertes,
Heller in the 1930’s, Le Caine in the 1950’s, Michel Waisvisz and Don Buchla in the
1960’s, Salvatori Martirano and the circuit benders in the 1970’s .
The basic sensing principle, sound synthesis method
and playing style of the Stylophone and Fingerphone are well known so the novel
aspects of the work presented here are in the domain of the tools, materials, form
and design methods with which these instruments are realized.
of the paper include: a complete musical instrument design that exploits the
potential of paper sensors, a novel strip origami pressure sensor, surface
e-field sensing without external passive components, a new manual layout to
explore sliding finger gestures, and suggestions of how to integrate questions
of sustainability and longevity into musical instrument design and construction.
The Fingerphone (Figure 2) achieves low total
material use, low energy cost and a small carbon footprint by using
comparatively thin materials, recycled cellulose and carbon to implement the
functions of the Stylophone without its high-energy cost and toxic materials: plastics,
metals, glass fiber and resins.
Figure 2: The Fingerphone
Stylophone contains two major, separate circuit boards with a different integrated
circuit on each: one for the oscillator and stylus-board, the other for an
LM386 power amplifier for the small speaker. The Fingerphone has only one
integrated circuit, an Atmel 8-bit micro-controller, that is used to sense
e-field touch and pressure on paper transducers, synthesize several digital
oscillators and drive the sound transducer using an integrated pulse width modulation
controller (PWM) as an energy-efficient, inductor-less class D amplifier.
Fingerphone’s playing surface, switches and volume control functions are achieved
using conductive paper [5, 6]. Various other materials were
explored including embroidered silver plaited nylon thread (Figure 3), and a
water-based silk-screened carbon-loaded ink (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Printed Manual
is an interesting choice because cellulose, its core component, is the most
common polymer, one that can be harvested sustainably and is also readily
available as a recycled product.
carbon footprint, and lifecycle cost analyses are notoriously hard to do well but
we can use some simple measures as proxies: The Stylophone has 65 components, a
production Fingerphone would have only six. Manufacturing process temperature
is another useful proxy: the Stylophone’s metals, plastic and solder suggest a
much higher cost than those associated with paper. At first glance it would
appear that the waste stream from the paper of the Fingerphone might be more
expensive than the Stylophone. In fact they are similar because of the packaging
of the reels the surface mount parts are contained in during manufacturing of
the Stylophone. The Fingerphone waste paper stream can be recycled back into
some products, such as grocery bags, plastic compares favorably to paper in
terms of environmental impact and production energy budgets. Paper has the advantage in musical
instrument s such as the Fingerphone of providing a medium to inscribe multiple
functions—a plurifunctionality difficult to achieve with plastics or metals.
These functions include: visual and tactile fiducials for the performer, highly
conductive and insulating regions for the playing surface, a membrane for the
bending wave sound transducer and an absorbent and thermally insulating
substrate for connections and support of the micro-controller and output
transducer. This plurifunctionality is found in traditional fretted
chordophones: frets serve as fiducials, to define the length of the sounding
string, as a fulcrum for tension modulation of the string and as an anvil to
transfer energy to the string in the "hammer on" gesture.
sensing of the performer's digits obviates the need for the Stylophone's metal
wand and connecting wire entirely. Employing a distributed-mode driver
eliminates the need for a loudspeaker cone and metal frame. In this way the
entire instrument surface can be used as an efficient radiator.
prototype of Figure 2 uses a small, readily available printed circuit board for
the Atmel micro-controller; the production version would instead use the common
"chip on board" technique observable as a black patch of epoxy on the
Stylophone oscillator board, on cheap calculators and other high volume
consumer products. This technique has been successfully used already for paper
and fiber substrates as in Figure 5 .
Figure 5: Chip on Fabric
conventional electronic design the cost of simple parts such as resistors and
capacitors is considered to be negligible; laptop computers, for example,
employ hundreds of these discrete surface mounted parts. This traditional
engineering focus on acquisition cost from high volume manufacturers doesn’t
include the lifecycle costs and, in particular, ignores the impact of using
such parts on the ability for users to eventually recycle or dispose of the devices.
Rather than use a conventional cost rationale the Fingerphone design was driven
by the question: how can each of these discrete components be eliminated
entirely? For example, Atmel provides a software library and guide for
capacitance sensing. Their design uses a discrete resistor and capacitor for
each sensor channel. The Fingerphone uses no external resistors or capacitors.
The built-in pull-up resistors of each I/O pin are used instead in conjunction with
the ambient capacitance measured between each key and its surrounding keys.
Stylophone has a switch to engage a fixed frequency and fixed depth vibrato,
and rotary potentiometers to adjust pitch and volume. These functions are
controlled on the Fingerphone using an origami piezoresistive sensor and linear
paper potentiometers. The former is a folded strip of paper using a flattened
thumb knot that forms a pentagon (Figure 6). Notice that 3 connections are made
to this structure eliminating the need for a pull up resistor and establishing
a ratiometric measure of applied pressure.
Figure 6: Origami Force Sensor
The remaining discrete components on the
micro-controller board can be eliminated in a production version: The LED and
its series resistor are used for debugging—a function easily replaced
using sound . The micro-controller can be
configured to not require either a pull-up resistor or reset button and to use
an internal RC clock instead of an external crystal or ceramic resonator. This
RC clock is not as accurate as the usual alternatives but certainly is as
stable as the Stylophone oscillator. This leaves just the micro-controller’s
magnet of the sound transducer shown in Figure 2 is one of the highest energy-cost devices in the design. A production version would use a piezo/ceramic transducer
instead. These have the advantage of being relatively thin (1-4mm) and are now
commonly used in cellphones and similar portable devices because they don't
create magnetic fields that might interfere with the compasses now used in
portable electronics. By controlling the shape of the conductive paper connections
to a piezo/ceramic transducer a low-pass filter can be tuned to attenuate high
frequency aliasing noise from the class D amplifier.
Instead of the dedicated battery compartment of the
Stylophone, the Fingerphone has a USB mini connector so that an external,
reusable source of power can be connected — one that is likely to be
shared among several devices, e.g, cameras, cellphones, or laptop computers. Rechargable,
emergency chargers for cellphones that use rechargeable lithium batteries and a
charging circuit are a good alternative to a disposable battery (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Reusable Power Sources
approach of providing modular power sources shared between multiple devices may
be found in modern power tool rechargeable battery packs, and in the Home Motor
of 1916. This was available from the Sears mail order catalog with attachments
for sewing, buffing, grinding, and sexual stimulation .
Fingerphone components are installed on a light, stiff substrate to provide a
resonating surface for the bending mode transducers. This has been found to be
a good opportunity for reuse so prototype Fingerphones have been built on the lid
of a pizza box, a cigar box, and a sonic greeting card from Hallmark - all of
which would normally be discarded after their first use. Such reuse has
precedent in musical-instrument building, e.g., the cajon (cod-fish shipping
crates), the steel-pan (oil drums), and ukulele (cigar boxes).
The bulk of the Fingerphone is recyclable, compostable
paper. A ring of perforations in the paper around the micro-controller would
facilitate separation of the small non-recyclable component from the recyclable
The Stylophone has a single, strident, sawtooth-wave timbre.
There is no control over the amplitude envelope of the sawtooth wave other than
to turn it off. This guarantees (as with the kazoo, harmonica, and vuvuzela)
that the instrument will be noticed – an important aspect of the gift
exchange ritual usually associated with the instrument. This combination of a
constrained timbre and dynamic envelope presents interesting orchestration
challenges. These have been
addressed by David Bowie and Little Boots in different ways: In early recordings
of "Space Oddity" the Stylophone is mostly masked by rich
orchestrations––in much the way the string section of an orchestra
balances the more strident woodwinds such as the oboe. Little Boots’
"Meddle" begins by announcing the song's core ostinato figure, the hocketing
of four staccato "call" notes on the Stylophone with "responding"
licks played on the piano. The lengths of call and response are carefully
balanced so that the relatively mellow instrument, the piano, is given more
time than the Stylophone.
The oscillators of the Fingerphone compute a digital phasor
using 24-bit arithmetic and index tables that include sine and triangle waves.
The phasor can also be output directly or appropriately clipped to yield
approximations to sawtooth and square/pulse waves respectively. Sufficient
memory is available for custom waveshapes or granular synthesis. The result is
greater pitch precision and more timbral options than the Stylophone.
An envelope function, shaped according to the touch
expressivity afforded by electric field sensing, modulates the oscillator
outputs of the Fingerphone. The level of dynamic control achieved is comparable
to the nine "waterfall" key contacts of the Hammond B3 organ.
playing is an important musical function and it requires control of note dynamics.
The audible on/off clicks of the Stylophone disrupt legato to such an extent
that the primary technique for melodic playing of the instrument is to rapidly
slide the stylus over the keys to create a perceived blurring between melody
notes. The dedicated performer with a steady hand can exploit a narrow
horizontal path half way down the Stylophone stylus-board to achieve a
chromatic run rather than the easier diatonic run
in the Fingerphone is facilitated by duophony so that notes can actually
overlap––as in traditional keyboard performance. Full, multi-voice
polyphony is also possible with a faster micro-controller or by taking
advantage of remote synthesis resources driven by the OSC and MIDI streams flowing
from the Fingerphone’s USB port.
Figure 8: Trills
Surface interaction interfaces provide fundamentally
different affordances to those of sprung or weighted action keyboards. In
particular it is slower and harder to control release gestures on surfaces
because they don’t provide the stored energy of a key to accelerate and preload
the release gesture. This factor and the ease of experimentation with paper
suggest a fruitful design space to explore: new surface layout designs. The
layout illustrated in Figure 4 resulted from experiments with elliptical
surface sliding gestures that were inspired by the way Dobro and lapstyle
guitar players perform vibrato and trills. Various diatonic and chromatic
ascending, descending and cyclical runs and trills can be performed by
orienting, positioning and scaling these elliptical and back and forth sliding
gestures on the surface.
By scaling the layout to comfortable finger size it
is possible to play the white “keys" between the black
ones–something that is impossible with the Stylophone layout.
interesting thing about modulations of size in interactive systems is that
continuous changes are experienced as qualitatively discrete, i.e., For each
performer, certain layouts become too small to reliably play or too large to
efficiently play. The economics of mass manufacturing interacts with this in a
way that historically has narrowed the number of sizes of instruments that are made
available. For example, the Jaranas of the Jarochos of Mexico are a chordophone
that players build for themselves and their children. They are made “to
measure” with extended families typically using seven or eight different sizes.
The vast majority of manufactured guitars on the other hand are almost entirely
“full size” with a few smaller sizes available for certain styles. This
contrasting situation was also present with the hand-built fretless banjos of
the 19th century now displaced by a few sizes of manufactured,
the case of the Stylophone the NRE (Non-recurring Engineering) costs for two molds
and the circuit boards discourage the development of a range of sizes. There
are also costs associated with the distribution and shelving in stores of
different sizes. The lower cost
structures of the Fingerphone on the other hand allow for a wider range of
sizes. Prototypes have been developed by hand and with a cheap desktop
plotter/cutter. Different scales can be experimented with in minutes instead of
the hours required to develop circuit boards. Also, die cutting of paper is
cheaper than injection molding or etching in production.
use of a finger-size scale would appear to put the Fingerphone at a portability
disadvantage with respect to the Stylophone. It turns out that fabric and paper allow
for folded Fingerphones that are no larger than the Stylophone for transport. Roll-up
computer keyboards and digitizing tablets are precedents for this approach.
By itself the Fingerphone will not have a significant direct
impact on the sustainability issues the world faces. However, now that musical
instrument building is being integrated as standard exercises in design school
classes, the Fingerphone can serve as a strong signal that more environmentally
responsible materials and design techniques are available.
Simondon’s thesis on the technical object  describes the value of plurifunctionality to avoid the pitfalls of “hypertelic and maladapted
designs”. Judging by the number of huge catalogs of millions of highly
functionally-specific electronic parts now available, the implications of Simondon’s
philosophical study were largely ignored. The Fingerphone illustrates how plurifunctionality
provides designers with an alternative route to economies of scale than the
usual high-volume-manufacturing one where the cost of development is amortized
over a large number of inscribed functions instead of a large number of high
The Fingerphone adds to a debate in the NIME community about
accessibility, ease of use and virtuosity. Wessel and Wright declare that it is
possible to build instruments with a low entry point and no ceiling on
virtuosity . Blaine and Fels argue that
this consideration is irrelevant to casual users of collaborative instruments . Isn’t there a neglected
space in between of transitional instruments that serve people on a journey as
they acquire musical skills and experience? Acoustic instrument examples include the
melodica, ukulele and recorder. The Stylophone, in common with Guitar hero and Paper Jamz, is designed with a primary focus on social signaling of musical
performance. The Fingerphone shows that affordable instruments may be designed
that both call attention to the performer and also afford the exercise and
development of musical skills, and a facilitated transition to other
Thanks for support from Pixar/Disney, Meyer Sound Labs, Nathalie Dumont from the Concordia University School of Fine Arts and the Canada Grand
The Paper FingerPhone: a case study of Musical Instrument Redesign for Sustainability
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, NIME 2012, 20/05/2012, Ann Arbor, Michigan, (2012)