At this weekend’s Grammys, with Microsoft Music Box, your body is the music

Maybe you’re “All About That Bass,” and no treble, as Meghan Trainor sings in her Grammy-nominated Record of the Year. Or maybe you’re more “Fancy,” also nominated for Record of the Year, from rapper Iggy Azalea. But, no matter what tune or lyrics, you have the music in you.

We all do. Music is universal; it’s a language we all speak and understand, no matter where we live, no matter what we do for a living, no matter how rich or poor we are. Some of us know how to play an instrument, how to read sheet music to play notes. But what if you could use your body to create and play music? What if, by an upward wave of your arm you could touch high notes, and dipping downward toward the ground produced lower notes – just by the way you moved? What if your body was the music?

This weekend, Feb. 6-8 in Los Angeles, those “what ifs” become realities with the Microsoft Music Box. It’s a Kinect- and Surface-powered keyboard experience that is installed at L.A. LIVE Plaza, next to the venue for the Grammys. Members of the public are invited and encouraged to try Microsoft Music Box for themselves from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.

“Everyone has an emotional and a powerful connection to music, but it’s a pretty hard thing to pick up and learn,” says Ross Clugston, design director at Interbrand, which worked with Microsoft and technology partner YesYesNo on the project. “But the joy that comes from creating music … everyone should have access to a way of creating and doing that.”

The Microsoft Music Box team hacked the Kinect to create the software for the project, Clugston says. Kinect uses skeletal tracking to interpret a person’s body movements on a three-dimensional grid, he says, “then it translates those movements using open-source software that we’ve custom written into music.”

There are three different music modes (for now): Percussion; a more traditional orchestra sound and music with a kind of “synth, futuristic feel,” he says.

Depending on how you move your body in the 4-foot-by-4-foot space you stand in – by crouching down, or being very expressive with your arms, reaching up to play higher notes, or going lower to play lower notes, Clugston says, Kinect then interprets that and “produces a really beautiful, emotional piece of music based on your personal mood and expression.”

Anyone, he says, “can step onto this device, move around however they like and create a beautiful piece of music.”

Here’s how it works: In the tented Microsoft Music Box, as soon as a person steps onto one of the “keyboards” shown from a projector situated on the roof of the tent, Kinect starts tracking their movements. Using software and coding done by YesYesNo, and powered by Surface, the projection and speakers transform the user’s body movements into an array of sounds and images, which evolve as they continue to move.

Microsoft Music Box is similar in some ways to the Cube, Microsoft’s interactive art installation that brought technology and design together last fall, inviting onlookers at Seattle’s Decibel Festival to become part of art.

Jeff Hansen, Microsoft Brand Studio general manager, says Microsoft’s core goal is “to empower people to achieve. As the official technology partner of the Grammys, we are proud to celebrate achievement in music. With this activation, we continue our exploration of what is possible at the intersection of technology and creative expression.”

Microsoft Music Box, Grammys
The joy of creating music comes through loud and clear in the Microsoft Music Box in Los Angeles, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015.

In addition to the public being invited to try out Microsoft Music Box, the West Hollywood School of Rock instructors will be helping facilitate the experience using Grammy-nominated songs.

“They can bring their perspective,” one that’s structured in terms of learning music, Clugston says, “And then we have the technology side of things – Microsoft and YesYesNo – and they bring their perspective.”

The aim, he says, is to “open the conversation between technology, music and the future with kids about how they think music will be made in the future, and what the future of music will be – and with this experience, produce some really cool music and some really cool ideas.”

On Friday, “People young and old came to play with us on the Microsoft Music Box,” says Sheila Anderson, Microsoft Brand Studio director. “Some enjoyed just watching, while others jumped right in to explore how gesture could make music.”

One young boy, she says, “turned to his mom after making music with the piano keyboard mode and said, ‘I can play an instrument now!’ ”

The creative explorations, Anderson says, “went in many directions. But what they all had in common was joy on people’s faces as they discovered the different ways their bodies could make music.”

Suzanne Choney
Microsoft News Center Staff


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