Watching Andrew McPherson play his new piano is a slightly strange experience. Sometimes his fingers push down on the keys as normal, but at others they waggle or slide all over them. That's because his keys have sensors to bring the sounds, flair and versatility of string instruments to the piano.
Developed by a team led by McPherson of technicians, composers and musicians at Queen Mary, University of London, TouchKeys allows pianists to try out musical techniquesSpeaker that were previously unimaginable on a keyboard.
Each key is fitted with a set of 26 sensors that work much like a smartphone's touchscreen to detect touch. The sensors know exactly where a finger has been placed, letting the player experiment with sounds. For example, waggling the finger on a key creates the sound of vibrato, often heard from a violin. Sliding it up and down the length of the key bends pitch, like a rock guitarist does. When I tried it out I found the movements intuitive. The vibrato was easy enough, but the pitch slide was a little harder to pick up.
Algorithms prevent the keyboard from going out of pitch or being triggered unintentionally, such as when pianists move their fingers to prepare for future notes or change hand position. The finger waggle to create the vibrato sound only works when your finger moves fast enough, for example. The team are launching the keyboard on crowdfunding website Kickstarter later this month to raise funds to commercialise it.
TouchKeys is not the only new concept for piano-playing. A design called the Roli Seaboard uses soft, squashy keys that you can bend or twist to create unusual new sounds. McPherson says he is a "big fan" of Seaboard but that while that design is trying to reimagine piano-playing in its entirety, Touchkeys keeps the classic keyboard design intact.
"I'm trying to preserve the feel of the keyboard so an experienced pianist can pick it up right away, while adding a range of new expressive techniques," he says. "Ultimately we are both looking at the same musical ideas: continuous expressive control under the fingertips. We're just coming at it from different angles."
To test the system, the team gave eight pianists a musical score to play on the new keyboard. They found that they were able to play it with little practice, triggering incorrect vibrato only 9 percent of the time.