The Past is Another Country

In 2018, I designed and built a set of data-gloves with my collaborator, Cloud Unknowing. Our first prototype was built using flexible sensors that I manufactured from an Instructables tutorial. They were relatively robust and, though the masking tape sealing filled me with apprehension, they worked.

Raw materials for the DIY flexible sensors.

Of course, data-gloves are nothing new. There is the Nintendo PowerGlove, the Mi.Mu and other commercially available gloves, ‘The Hands’ by Michel Waisvitz, Laetitia Sonami’s ‘Lady Glove’, and Elena Jessop’s ‘VAMP’. We concentrated our research on Jessop’s, the Mi.Mu dev-bog (which has been taken down again), and Glove.Sense (by an undergraduate bachelor of science team in the UK) as the most relevant and well documented to begin our own implementation. There are a multitude of other designs and implementations, both glove-based and non-glove-based. I will not go into them here.

Finished DIY flexible sensors next to the commercially made sensors.

After two months of research, conceptualising, and prototyping, we began construction of this version. The aforementioned DIY flex sensors were replaced by the Adafruit commercial ones for longevity. There are three long (4.5″) sensors per hand. Partly because I think the pinky is a bit of a redundant finger, and partly because three were easier to implement and control in the short term. We used an Arduino Nano powered by a small PowerBank for each glove and connected to the computer (a late 2011 Macbook Pro) via a Blue Smirf Silver. Larger PowerBanks would not register the small current draw of the Arduino and would switch off after a short amount of time. We also used two small momentary switches, which were mounted on the top of the enclosure. These buttons were placed there with the idea of being able to trigger capture for granular synthesis, looping, and triggering other samples (atmospheric noises, backing tracks, etc.)

Very basic routing from gloves to computer.

The development was stressful because of our very limited time for construction, evaluation, and implementation of a composition designed to demonstrate the potentials of the gloves for future use and other iterations. The Arduino sketch was largely based off one of their default test patches (a colour picker) and was relatively simple to implement once a solution was found. Connecting the gloves to Max/MSP, however, was fraught. Hoping to have a much more sophisticated set of controls, I set about building a custom max-patch that could also analyse some basic gestures. To no one’s surprise (or at least my own), I could not get the thing working before the required deadline. In the end, we went with another simplified, but functional, implementation and connection to the final data resting place – Ableton. In Ableton, we mapped the Max/MSP data as MIDI to controls on effects, other triggers, and samples. The effects were curated prior to finished construction of the glove using an iCon iControl.

Here, you can see the first test where I was able to don both gloves and use them to affect live audio from two microphones. I used two, again, to keep channel data simple. Because data was still coming in from the other glove, I could either have a lot of distortion or all of the distortion. Two microphones meant that I was able to have an ‘angry hand’ and an ‘ethereal hand’ (reverb and delay). Incidentally, if you didn’t watch the clip, it’s also the moment where I discovered the ‘all off’ function was the ‘fuck you’ gesture.

Glove Construction, V1: teal PU, shoelaces, eyelets, project box, swimming Lycra lining, stretch lace.

The next step in glove development was to create the piece, Tāwhirimātea, which can be found under the Compositions tab and documented in it’s relation to the gloves and the ongoing process in my Riffs Journal article (Link TBC). This piece serves primarily to test the gloves’ durability, usefulness, and effects in performance. It was written using a storyboard to rehearse sonic textures which were cued by gestures (some of which had actual performative cues built into the conducting gesture).

Maiden voyage of Tāwhirimātea and The Gloves.

After this performance, it was clear to myself and Cloud that there would be much further work needed on the gloves. They were functional (I continued to use them in performances for the next year) but they were cumbersome, the Bluetooth was annoying, and the execution of the design was necessarily inelegant. At the time, I was consumed by the stress of glove development and couldn’t fathom wanting to take the gloves to a higher state of being. The public and peer response to the system and my use of it gradually lessened this fatigue over nine months. The path of the future unravelled, and it became clear. They were always the prototype.