A few weeks ago, the Exploratorium launched a new outdoor space on Market Street called a Living Innovation Zone (LIZ). The prototype space is an exciting way for us to put some of our favorite exhibits out in the middle of downtown San Francisco and share them with the thousands of people who walk by the plaza every day. One of the exhibits that we thought would be a great addition to the space was the musical bench which creates a melody based on the resistance generated when two people hold hands.
We love the musical bench in the Tinkering Studio because it encourages playful interactions and collaborations naturally. As people experiment with each other, the notes change depending on how much skin is in contact and the moisture of each person's hands. The musical bench is also a favorite for us because it shows the result of the process of tinkering and has gone through many iterations from ice balloons to a musical drinking fountain, to a full body set-up that we called "ohm is where the art is". When we heard that it might be rebuilt as part of the LIZ, we were excited to see the latest iteration to an outdoor exhibit.
Another reason that we were excited about the newest version was that it gave us the chance to update the hardware and software that makes it work. We have been running the musical bench (and all the other versions) off an old cricket computer prototype that was developed at the MIT Media Lab over a decade ago. Ray and Jesse wanted to translate the musical bench program to an arduino and commonly available midi board. They were helped by the composer of the original bench and long-time tinkering studio collaborator Eric Rosenbaum who miraculously still had a screen grab of the original logo blocks code that could be used as the basis for the new program. One of the coolest things about this process is that we could finally be able to share the materials and code for the bench so that other people or museums could make their own versions. Once we get the program further developed, we'll post the instructions online!
A few days before the soft opening, the team showed off a prototype version of the bench that used the new hardware in a tabletop experience. Pretty soon we were all experimenting with touching fingers and palms, hi-fives, hand-holding chains - a good sign of success. It worked well for that purpose and it was cool to see how easy it was for Ray to go into the program and change the pitch of the notes, the number of tones per touch, and the responsiveness of the program so that it could reset for each person (more perspiration = higher notes).
The next week, I rode by the LIZ on the way to work and saw Jesse finishing up the first prototype of the singing bench. It looked great with the other exhibits (whispering dishes and a bicycle exhibits) and together they formed a nice little space in the chaos of market street.
After the event, there was a nice article in the SF Gate about the LIZ. Here's my favorite quote from the story:
And who knows? The exhibit could lead to inspiration of another kind. Shawn Lani, a senior artist at the Exploratorium watched as two strangers, a filmmaker and an advertising guy, happened by the exhibit at the same time, ended up holding hands on the singing bench, chatted some more, and few minutes later walked off together.
We're excited to keep working on these ideas with the outdoor group and refine this latest version of the singing bench. And once the code is up online, we're hopeful that others outside the museum will take the concept and create the newest iteration of the musical bench.