Humbly Report: Sean Bechhofer

Semantics 'n' stuff

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Sparky’s Magic Piano

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Not actually the Magic Piano.....

In the week before Christmas, I attended the Digital Music Research Network meeting at Queen Mary, University of London. Digital Music research is not an area I’m currently involved with, but I went to the meeting at the suggestion of Dave De Roure. I’ll be spending some sabbatical time with Dave in Oxford this year and one of the things we’re going to be looking at is whether we can apply the technologies and approaches being developed in other project (in particular the Research Objects of Wf4Ever) to tasks like Music Information Retrieval. I’m also excited about this as it fits with some of my extra-curricular interests in music. The mix of the technical and artistic (in terms of both content and people) reminded me of Hypertext conferences that I went to back in ’99 and ’00.

Although some of the talks were a long way from my expertise, I found a few of particular interest. The opening keynote from Elaine Chew discussed some of the issues involved in conducting research — for example ensuring that work leads to publication (and publications that “count”), credit is given for researchers involved in the work, and that work is sustainable. This was illustrated with some fascinating video footage of experiments with a piano duo, investigating how the introduction of delay affects the interaction and interplay between performers.

Gyorgy Fazekas presented the studio ontology — a model that builds on earlier work on a Music Ontology by Yves Raimond. At first sight, the ontology seems fairly lightweight (largely asserted taxonomy), but given my own interests in Semantic Web technologies, this is clearly an area for further investigation.

The jewel in the crown, however, was Andrew McPherson‘s work on Electronic augmentation of the acoustic grand piano. The magnetic resonator piano uses electromagnets to induce string vibrations. For those of you familiar with the EBow, used by guitarists including Bill Nelson and Robert Fripp, it’s like a piano with 88 EBows bolted on to it. A keyboard sensor (I believe using a Moog Piano Bar) captures data from the keys and drives the system. The whole thing requires no alteration to the instrument, and can be set up in a few hours. It’s an electronic instrument, but all the sound is produced using the physical soundboard and strings of the instrument itself (i.e. no amplifier/speakers).

The overall effect is a little like an organ, with infinite sustain of notes, but many more subtle effects can be obtained including string “bending” and the introduction of additional harmonic tones. Andrew gave a demonstration of the instrument over lunch. One regret I have is that performance anxiety kicked in here (I’m a fairly rudimentary pianist) and I didn’t rush forward to have a go when he offered it to the floor! And I hadn’t brought a camera. Videos on Andrew’s site show the instrument in action.

One aspect here is the use of various gestures. Electronic keyboards have facilities like aftertouch, allowing the player to add additional pressure to the keys to control the additional tones/effects. This is possible here, with other gestures such as sliding the fingers along or up and down the keys being used to “play” the instrument. In the talk, Andrew described some additional work he was doing on providing enhanced keyboard controllers to support these additional gestures. The piano keyboard is a ubiquitous controller/interface to a musical instrument — it will be interesting to see how these additional gestures and controls fit in with players’ established practices, and which gestures are “right” for which effects.

Of course, the obvious question that we then all asked was what other instruments one could apply this approach to. Answers on a postcard……

Written by Sean Bechhofer

January 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Posted in music, workshop

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Infinite Bandwidth, Zero Latency

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Rich Picture

Rich Picture

I participated in an workshop on Infinite Bandwidth, Zero Latency (IBZL) last week. This was the second such event organised by the Open University and Manchester Digital, and brought together a diverse group of people to discuss the changes that might come about through the provision of limitless bandwidth. Participants included academics from a number of institutions, telecoms and networking experts, creative consultants, and representatives from community and third sector organisations. In his entertaining talk after dinner on Tuesday night, John Naughton reminded us that in terms of the changes that might be brought about by distruptive technologies, prediction is futile, citing the examples of systems such as YouTube and Facebook, which “no-one saw coming”. However, it is still a useful exercise to examine the challenges that new technologies can bring.


The workshop was facilited by Simon Bell of the Open University using a process known as Triple Task. This involved first drawing a rich picture that tried to capture our current thoughts about the issues raise by the introduction of IBZL. Following that, we identified opportunities and dreams within those pictures (although the distinction between the two is not always clear). These were then classified according to their achievability (easy/hard) and interest (exciting/not exciting). Finally, clusters were defined, that grouped these together, encapsulating various changes or transformations that might be brought about.

Throughout the day we worked in three groups, coming together after each session to report progress and exchange ideas. It was interesting to see much the final outcomes of each group differed, not just in terms of their content, but also the shape and level of the final clusters. One group identified a number of concrete proposals which one could begin to work on today (including some fairly radical ideas involving sheep farming). Our group identified four rather high level groupings: interfaces, control, data and network topology. Of these, the two that most interested me were the notions of interface and control. A summary of the workshop findings will be available in time.

Interfaces will be key. How do we filter the huge amounts of information now available in order to allow us to make sense of and use it? Along with the question of infinite bandwidth and zero latency, there was also a desire identified for ubiquity — such infrastructure is no use unless I can guarantee access to it. With such ubiquity the interface should become less about particular devices and more about simply the access to the information. Of course, I’m not claiming here that I know how any of this will work!

Throughout the day, we continually returned to the question of privacy. This eventually came out as a more general notion of Control, with the individual being given greater control over not only what information might be exposed but also where it might be stored. IBZL could remove the necessity for data replication or data centres — if I have unlimited connectivity, why don’t I just keep all my personal data on my desktop and then explicitly choose who I serve it to? This has the potential to shift the power balance back towards the indidivual, bringing greater personal responsibility.

Thanks to Steve Walker and Shaun Fensom for organising the workshop and inviting me, and also to the other participants for contributing to an interesting and stimulating day. It was particularly useful to meet Steven Flower from Substance, who is involved in the Open Data movement in Manchester and who has some data sets relating to Angling, which could well be useful for our FISH.Link project.

Rich Picture

Big Bird

Look at the size of that!

Finally, on a different topic, as the workshop was held at Manchester Airport, we had an opportunity to see the Emirates A380 Airbus. We missed the landing, but watched it take off in the afternoon. That’s a big, big plane. Increased bandwidth maybe, but it’s still a five hour flight time to Dubai — a long way from zero latency!

Written by Sean Bechhofer

October 25, 2010 at 10:52 am

Posted in workshop

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