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October 2004

HP Labs @ MTV

Researchers imagine the future of music, and more


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HP Labs researchers April Slayden and Mat Hans talk with DJ Gavin O'Connor (center). HP Labs researchers April Slayden and Mat Hans talk with DJ Gavin O'Connor (center)
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Your DJammer is really an instrument. You create music with it..

by Simon Firth

HP researcher April Slayden didn’t just snag an invite to this year’s MTV Video Music Awards in Miami. She also got asked to the exclusive after-show party, hosted by rap impresario Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, and graced by entertainment insiders such as Paris Hilton, the Olsen twins and Andre 3000 from Outkast.

What could be cooler than that? Well, how about having your current research project demoed at the party?

One of two DJs playing the event was highly regarded Los Angeles DJ Gavin O’Connor. In addition to using a traditional turntable to scratch his tracks, O’Connor used a handheld device -- the DJammer -- invented by Slayden’s HP Labs co-workers Mat Hans and Mark Smith.

“It was amazing, having all these people see something that we’re working on at HP,” says Slayden, who is the DJammer’s software engineer and user interface expert.

The DJammer allows a DJ to digitally interact with a music track to create the distinctive scratching sounds usually made by manually slowing down or speeding up a vinyl disk. What’s more, it’s connected to a turntable via a wireless connection, so the DJ can interact with the music from anywhere in the room.

Potential for digital entertainment

By all accounts DJ O’Connor’s high-profile demo was a hit.

“I was approached by big-name DJs from all over the country who wanted to buy one of these,” recalls Slayden. When they found out that the DJammer was, for now, just a prototype,“they wanted to know if they could get involved with HP to collaborate on how it develops," she adds.

That bodes well for HP as it makes a move into the worlds of music and entertainment with the launch of products such as its Apple iPod from HP and new HP flat-panel plasma and LCD TVs.

But the team behind the DJammer believes the device has the potential to go beyond the relatively small world of top-rank DJs. At its core, they suggest, are ideas that might fundamentally change how we use technology to entertain both ourselves and each other.

Hip Hop goes digital

The DJammer project began life as a way of thinking about the next stage in digital music.

Currently the most popular products in this area are digital audio players, which essentially act as mobile music libraries. But however much they’ve become totems of cool, they could be cooler still. They remain passive devices, for example, not addressing two of the great passions of today: creativity and communication.

HP researcher Mat Hans began thinking about how the digital audio experience could address those passions in the summer of 2002, when he attended a presentation by DJ Gerald “World Wide” Webb at New York University organized by the Scratch DJ Academy.

There Hans saw that even though DJs were starting to use digital tracks in their work, the digital machines they relied on were huge. Could the same thing be done, he wondered, on a much smaller -- and thus potentially mobile – scale?

First prototype

Hans teamed up with researcher Mark Smith to create an initial prototype. Smith had co-invented the technology behind the handheld optical scanner -- today integrated into all optical mice and manufactured by HP spin-off Agilent – and that proved to be an excellent first scratching sensor replicating analog scratching by measuring finger position to alter the digital audio files.

They then added a second sensor -- a 3D accelerometer -- that made it possible to control the music by shaking the DJammer (it's the same technology used in some laptops to lift the head off the hard drive when it's dropped).

Smith and Hans took their prototype back to the Scratch DJ Academy for a tryout in January 2003. "It was incredible -- the sounds those people were creating with the machine," recalls Hans.

Music industry gets a preview

That prototype was also getting attention inside HP. One call the team received was from Sam Lucente, HP’s Brand Design and Experience Director, who wanted to show off the DJammer at HP’s upcoming Digital Experience launch in Miami. (At the launch, HP introduced its fall lineup of digital photography, music, TV, home projection and other entertainment offerings.)

With just a couple of months to go before the launch, the DJammer team worked with Larry Trigg from Lucente’s group and the industrial design firm of IDEO to come up with a finished prototype. They also hooked up with DJ Gavin O’Connor from Universal Music Group, who provided insight into how to make the device truly valuable to DJs.

The redesigned DJammer has a look inspired by musical instruments, with inlaid polished wood and a ring of polished metal formed to fit snugly into the hand. Three programmable buttons control elements such as muting, pausing and jumping to predefined points in a song. The 3D accelerometer that changed the pitch has been replaced with a 1D one that is easier to control.

The night before the big HP product launch -- timed to coincide with the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards, which HP was sponsoring -- DJ Gavin O’Connor provided a sneak preview of the new DJammer. MTV executives on hand signed the DJ up to play at the big Sean Combs party after the MTV awards.

Share it with a friend

The DJammer has the potential to be more than just a nifty digital scratching device.

At the MTV party, the DJammer was wirelessly communicating only with a turntable. But since it is designed to be wireless-ready for local area (Wi-Fi) connectivity, it could have streamed DJ O’Connor’s music to any number of other wireless machines within his receiving area.

"Your DJammer is really an instrument," notes Hans. "You create music with it. As soon as people create music, they are going to want to say, 'Hey, listen to this.' The friends who receive it can scratch on it too, and send it back."

The software running the DJammer’s interactions employs the industry-standard Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which is the standard behind the Voice over Internet Protocol concept. Since SIP is also the basis for Microsoft's Windows XP Messenger, any DJammer has a potential audience reach of staggering proportions.

The device has a microphone jack on it, too, so users could easily plug a guitar into the DJammer and stream that sound to others. Each listener could potentially add bass and drums and vocals -- creating, in essence, a band, playing live, whose members may be anywhere in the world.

What the future holds

HP has no current plans to manufacture the current version of the Djammer, but that doesn't bother the team behind it.

"It's part of our work to show what's coming up in five years," says Hans, who leads a new Audio Communication and Entertainment group within HP Labs to further explore the ideas behind the DJammer.

The next immediate challenge for the team is to upgrade the DJammer so users can mix two or more digital tracks together. That's the other trick DJs like: seamlessly mixing one track into another, even when they are recorded at different tempos.

Hans and Mark Smith have published papers on how they would do this, and also filed a patent application on the DJammer concept.

But as they see it, that's just the start of what a product like the HP DJammer can offer anyone -- young or old -- interested in finding new ways to make and share the music they're creating.

Related links

» DJammer research
» Related publications
» April Slayden

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