Ken Moore and Wii

The theremin is a relatively modern musical instrument. Invented in 1920 by Russian physicist Léon Theremin, it’s unique in that it’s played without being touched. Pitch and volume are determined by the proximity of the hands to two antennae. The resulting sounds are eerie and reminiscent of mid 20th-century sci-fi films like The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Several years ago, Ken Moore, a Seattle-based user experience designer for Google, built a theremin that adheres to the traditional touchless play, but instead of using radio frequency oscillators to sense movement, he used a Nintendo Wii Controller. The Wii detects infrared light emanating from the LEDs embedded in the index fingers of a pair of leather gloves worn by the musician. The position of the player’s hands controls the sounds: left hand for volume, right hand for pitch. The information gets transmitted via MIDI to a synthesizer, which creates the actual sound.

Two years later, Moore, 43, built another theremin — this time using a Microsoft Kinect to detect hand motions, mapping them to correspond to pitch (right hand, z-axis), volume (left hand, y-axis) and modulation (left hand, x-axis). Onscreen, the mapped body displays as a pulsing rainbow, its brightness and colors fluctuating based on volume and pitch.

After building both, Moore concluded that the Wii version is superior because the Kinect controller has significant latency and the Wii handles slides between notes better, due to a higher data-sampling rate.

And because both theremins use a synthesizer to create sound, “I’m not restricted to the sine wave sound of a traditional theremin, so the sonic possibilities are endless,” muses Moore. “My father-in-law, a dentist, suggested I should make it sound like a dental drill.”