MIT Media Lab knits an expressive wearable MIDI keyboard

Inspired by leaps in the development of electronic music controllers and the visual and tactile appeal of knitted fabrics, Irmandy Wicaksono from MIT’s Media Lab has combined the two to create the KnittedKeyboard II, kind of like a Roli Seaboard you can wear.

The KnittedKeyboard II was created using an industrial digital knitting machine, producing a fabric scarf with a raised piano-like keyboard in silver-colored conductive thermoplastic on a background of non-conductive blue polyester fiber.

The five-octave keyboard can be played just like a normal piano, but the MIT team (which also includes Professor Joseph A. Paradiso and Mike Hao Jiang) has also cooked in MIDI Polyphonic Expression capabilities to manipulate notes by squeezing, stretching pulling or twisting the knitted fabric, as well as proximity sensing for Theremin-like gestural controls.

Each key acts as an electrode, which creates an electromagmetic field above the keyboard area and allows the device to both sense physical contact, with a piezo-resistive layer used to register pressure and stretch, and to trigger when it detects the wave of a player’s hand.

The KnittedKeyboard II can sense physical contact and gestures in the air
The KnittedKeyboard II can sense physical contact and gestures in the air

Irmandy Wicaksono

All of the data captured by the sensors is converted into MIDI signals and can be mapped to parameters, sounds and effects in music production software such as Ableton Live running on a laptop or computer.

The work is a continuation of 2017’s FabricKeyboard and last year’s KnittedKeyboard projects from the same team, so it’s a research study only – but both of those versions rocked a flat playing surface, this latest flavor benefits from raised keys. There’s no mention of how the KnittedKeyboard II is powered or how it’s cabled up to a computer running MIDI software, but the previous version made use of hairless MIDI as a bridge to the USB port, and it’s likely that something similar was used here.

Though it already has the look of a novelty wearable you might find in the electronic instrument section of a high street music store, there’s no word on whether this project will ever be refined into a commercially available product. But you can see and hear the KnittedKeyboard II in action in the video below, which includes music written especially for the wearable instrument called Fabric of Time and Space.

KnittedKeyboard II

Source: MIT Media Lab