What if buttons could talk back? Monome, a
Philadelphia collective of musicians and tech-savvy
designers, is exploring that concept in a big way.
Its 40h “computer-human user interface” is a
6.75-inch-square USB controller on which each
of the 64 backlit buttons is also a pixel in an interactive display. (40h is 64 in hexadecimal.)
Software for Windows, Mac, and Linux transforms
the 40h into eight step faders, a one-bit video
display, a drum machine, a spectrograph, an audio-sample slicer, triggers for popular music programs,
or whatever you decide to make. Both the software
and firmware are open source, and Monome purposely included extra inputs on the circuit boards to
facilitate modding. Other makers have already added
knobs, accelerometers, and even alternative LEDs.
“By all means we want you to open up and change
your hardware,” begins one of the detailed tutorials
on the Monome site. “We are not responsible if
something goes wrong, [but] we will help you fix
your problem and we’ll even repair your unit” (fee
applies for that).
In reality, the 40h is more of an interactive art
experiment than a retail product. Only 400 units
were made, and custom parts and hand assembly
drove the price to $500. Monome’s manufacturing philosophy is meticulous, too. Following the
Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (see
wikipedia.org/wiki/ROHS), the group avoids lead-based components and other toxics. It seeks out
local suppliers, uses recyclable packaging, and even
delivers orders to the UPS depot by bicycle.
The name Monome (pronounced mon ohm) is a
nod to the simplicity of monomial numbers, to the
minimalist credo of doing more with less.
Addressing two of the most frequent user requests,
Monome’s Brian Crabtree writes, “If we had tri-colored LEDs and velocity-sensitive pads, it’d be
an entirely different instrument. I am honestly less
interested in gradients (tri-color or velocity) than I
am in the 16× 16 [an upcoming 256-button controller].
More bits!” —David Battino
>> Monome: monome.org
Photograph courtesy of monome.org
22 Make: Volume 10