Playgrounds that make music : A MIT Media Lab week

By 14 septembre 2018Plushnugggets

This summer I had the opportunity to participate in an amazing event called « Signal & Noises » organized by the MIT Media Lab in Berlin. For a whole week, I was part of a team that designed, iterated and prototyped around the topic of « Playful Machines that Make Music ».

It was in the stunning St. Elizabeth Church, in Berlin, that entrepreneurs, students, thinkers and hackers set foot for a crazy week of creativity and learning! Five different tracks were opened to participants:
01 Machine learning for creative AI
02 Blockchain and the Internet of value
03 VR/AR-based learning experience
04 Technology for communication with the Deaf
05 Playful machines that make music
I took part in track n°5, « Playful Machines that Make Music ». Of course, what attracted me to this track was the playful element. However, considering Berlin’s context, I was also very enthusiastic about the music side of things.
In this article, I will provide an overview about this great experience, highlighting all my surprises and learnings. I will also present my team’s project and what we ended up building!

Surprises & Learnings
Among the different values espoused by the event, the anti-disciplinary aspect particularly caught my attention. It was truly about merging fields, but also people, for a better learning experience. People not only introduced themselves by presenting their field of expertise, but also by talking about what they were interested in, what they would like to develop and how the topic interest was important to them.

In general, the diversity of profiles among the participants was very pleasing. People came from everywhere in the world. In the picture below, you will find a mapping of the participants’ country of origin, with Berlin in the center.

Photo credit : Philipp Schmidt

Despite these participants having a lot of differences, I also found many commonalities between them. Everyone I had the chance to talk to was open, young at heart, full of projects, ideas and maker skills.

This created an atmosphere of discovery, curiosity and experimentation. For my part, I felt very engaged in thinking on my own as well as with others! The extraordinary quantity of post-its, writing & prototypes was just a tiny physical representation of what seemed to be occurring in our minds. It made the experience truly unique, sometimes chaotic, but the organization team kept everything smoothly running. Our track leader, Xiao Xiao & Akito van Troyer, created an atmosphere of listening to one another and considering everyone’s ideas. They also managed to foster a fun, light and creative ambiance.
As our group was working on track 05 “Playful Machines that Make Music”, there was a feeling that the group was almost a band jamming. For my part, I discovered instruments that I had never seen in my life and enjoyed observingthe way people interacted with all sorts of « music machines » all week.

When organizing such an event, the sandbox you’re placing your participants in is a tremendous force of inspiration for them. LEGO boxes and crafty art materials were everywhere. I discovered some LEGO pieces I hadn’t seen before, with embedded sensors that are very useful for rapid prototyping. We also had some Littlebits material for music making, a FabLab space at our disposal for prototyping and more complex instruments on top of all the software!
So… what did we do?

Moduland
After a few days of ideating and exchanging on the topic, we had a big landscape of inspirations in front of us. Quite organically, the group decided to work on a playground -the one located right next to the church. Our plan was to hack the playground so that it would become a synthesizer of music!

With MODULAND, playgrounds become modular synthesizers to raise curiosity, exploration, and connection to electronic music making. Each element of the playground has a specific role. As an example, the stairs represent the electronic keyboard, creating sound when you would walk on each stair of the playground module.

Music making has a mental barrier to start the creation – I am well placed to know that! – and the objective of our installation is to offer an accessible music making experience, which requires no expert skills.

In order to represent the Berlin atmosphere in our project, we focused on electronic music making. We ended up building a toolkit, pluggable in any playground, that allows people of all ages to discover electronic music in an open area. Berlin is well-known for its electronic music scene, however it is very often confined to clubs. Moduland offers some kind of an alternative and raises awareness of electronic music.

I’ve been so happy to take part in this adventure and was amazed by the group reflections, as well as the attachment to each other we developed during the week. Hello Moduland team 😀

The Moduland Team

To be fair, all the groups seemed to have had an amazing time and when it was finally time for the Demo Day, we had the opportunity to discover all the different projects created in St Elizabeth Church. From machines that crave attention, to a VR experience that helps you discover stories of East Berliners who escaped to the West in the 1960s, or blockchain depicted as a religion, I was amazed by the quality of the demonstrations. All of them carried a strong and collaborative thinking that was very qualitative.

Lastly, I would like to say thank you to everyone who contributed to this week. I truly appreciate the Media Lab opening up in a very beautiful way outside of Cambridge, MA: spreading around its spirit and its values. I hope to see more of you in a crazy event like this: perhaps for the next edition of Make it Playful!

Article written by Laure Dousset, CEO of Plush & Nuggets