Control Music Synthesizers With Gestures Through This Arduino-Based Saucer Called ‘The UFO’

Arduino has found its way into yet another musical device. I came across the ‘UFO’ while in Berlin. It’s a MIDI controller that lets you compose music or control synthesizers by waving your hands about.

Its creator, a Finnish former game developer named Tommi Koskinen, built it for use in performances with his band Phantom. After co-founding a company called Audiodraft and building games for several years for companies like Digital Chocolate and GameHouse, Koskinen said he felt a desire to build something more tangible. He was inspired by a performance he saw at a Helsinki art festival a year ago.

“There was this one artist that was using sonic sensors to control visuals and some tonalities,” Koskinen said. “There where I got this idea. I really wanted to have a device like that, where I could use my hands to control my own music and have it in a standalone box that could connect to any laptop or synthesizer.”

After some design courses at a university, he started prototyping a device.

To be clear, this isn’t a MIDI theremin (or one of those instruments that was popular in 50s sci-fi films), since the technology is different. Theremins use radio frequency oscillators while the UFO is ultrasonic. It emits sounds that aren’t detectable by the human ear and then senses echoes to measure distance. Based on the distance of your hands from the device, the UFO can control the pitch of a sound or push a track through a low-pass filter or add other effects to varying degrees.

It converts the distance of your hands from the device into MIDI data that can be fed into audio sequencing software like Ableton Live.

You can also use it to compose music. There’s a mode that he built that lets the UFO send MIDI notes and lets you control it like a virtual air keyboard. Each sensor can emit a different note (like on a pentatonic scale for example), and when you move your hand from left to right, it can be like doing a glissando on a piano. There’s a video demo below of that mode.

Koskinen just has one device right now, but he says he’d consider open-sourcing parts of the design (with the exception of the laser-cut casing).