More Fun With Slime Mold: Hybrid Musical Interface

I have discussed slime mold computing earlier, which is really cool and strange. These little beasties have been used as analog circuits, using their growth processes to create networks that “solve problems”. For example, slime mold can solve moderate sized traveling salesman problems.

Unlike silicon based computing, slime molds are slow, low energy and cheap. Add a little food and water, and put them in a cool, dark place, and eventually they will “grow” a solution for you.

This technology has been adopted by composer Eduardo Miranda of Plymouth University (UK), to create a hybrid piano (analog), computer (digital), and slime mold (biological) system that responds to the music played by the human.

The digital system acts to create “species appropriate interfaces” ([1]) for the Homo sapiens and the Physarum polycephalum (which is more of a colony than an individual).

As far as I can understand, the sound from the piano is picked up by a microphone, and converted to electrical signals tat tickle the Physarum polycephalum. The slime mold network responds to the current by emitting current at other contacts, which are picked up by the digital system. These signals are turned into magnetic “plucks” on piano strings, creating sounds that are perceptible by the human.

The result is sort of a responsive sound generator, governed by the otherworldly logic of slime mold growth.

Weird, but kind of cool.

As noted this wins full points for species appropriate interfacing, in a pretty difficult case. Physarum polycephalum are significantly different from Homo sapiens, so the digital mediation is complex and iffy. Using a musical task is actually a brilliant idea, though we can question whether the subjective meaning of the experience is anywhere near a joint or collaborative work for the two performers.

Unfortunately, Miranda succumbed to temptation (as well as the reality of time and resources), and uses an iPad app as a control interface. Ick! We’ll add this to the Inappropriate Touch Screen Files, though certainly we can excuse the lapse, given the awesomeness of the hybrid musical interface.


  1. Robert E. McGrath, “Species-Appropriate Computer Mediated Interaction”, alt.chi, ACM CHI 2009, Boston, April 8, 2009, pp. 2529-2534. DOI 10.1145/1520340.1520357

 

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