Saturday, March 15, 2008

How Do We Create?

Amy Tam might have been a bit of a disappointment in this session, but Tod Machover blew away my expectations. Head of the MIT Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group, Machover is an inventor, a musician, a technologist, and an educator. Perhaps he and his team are best known for Guitar Hero, the wildly popular Wii game. He is passionate about music and the transformative effect it can have on people.

Machover started designing interactive instruments, or hyperinstruments, at the Media Lab for musicians like Yo Yo Ma, Prince and Peter Gabriel. These electrical instruments used feedback from the player to interact with the music. He soon moved on from this elite crowd to designing instruments for kids, and showed pictures of exuberant kids playing his Music Toys, electronically enabled instruments in bright colours that kids squeeze, or hit.

He’s also developed Hyperscore, a simple way for kids to compose music. It doesn’t have notes like a regular music score, but rather coloured horizontal lines of different lengths and colours to designate the notes that are to be played, and of course it’s interactive. It’s designed to allow students to compose music without learning an onerous amount of theory.

Machover believes in the power of music to make the world a better place, particularly in healthcare settings. He observed that music is one of the last things that an Alzheimer’s patient will respond to and referred to Oliver Sacks’ (the doctor in the movie Awakenings) recent book Musicophilia about connections between music and the brain. That sounds like a book worth reading.

As part of his commitment to music that changes the world, Machover started to work with patients at the Tewksbury Hospital for chronically and mentally ill patients. He introduced Dan Ellsey to the audience. Dan is an outgoing 34 year old suffering from cerebral palsy who loves music. His visit to TED was only his second time outside Massachusetts. Dan had been an early composer using Hyperscore and Machover and his team felt that Dan should also be able to perform his music and developed software to support that. His performance of his own composition My Eagle Song was a blow away performance, not least because of the elation on Ellsie’s face and the pride on Machover’s.

His work made me think of the incredible work on Snoezelen multi-sensory environments by my friend Barbara McCormack. When I approached Machover about meeting Barbara, he seemed interested. It’s hard to avoid the TED clichés when writing this blog (you can’t keep using the words extraordinary, magic, moving, passionate all the time, or describing “TED moments”), but this clearly has the possibility to be one of those wonderful “TED connections”.

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