A Virginia Tech undergraduate helped build software capable of communicating with a device that can translate finger pressure into sound and light.

Rachel Hachem, a senior majoring in creative technologies in music in the School of Performing Arts, served as a leader in a collaborative project between Virginia Tech’s Linux Laptop Orchestra and Sensel Inc., a tech company specializing in computer interaction.

The new software is an extension of a programming environment that provides easy access to the multitouch pressure data from the Sensel Morph, a multitouch controller that recognizes user input through a variety of methods.

Hachem used Purr-Data, an open-source visual programming language that was developed in part at Virginia Tech, in conjunction with the Linux Laptop Orchestra, known as L2Ork (pronounced lork). She wrote code and led the development of the software under the mentorship of Ivica Ico Bukvic, director of L2Ork and a professor of creative technologies in music in the School of Performing Arts.

“To break it down simply, Purr-Data is a blank canvas with a multitude of tools to construct audio creatively,” Hachem said. “It has objects, which can be anything from an oscillator to a mathematical operation to a digital-to-analog converter that can be ‘patched’ together. The result can range from simple synthesis to insanely creative and computationally intense works of art.”

Hachem was the first Virginia Tech student to select creative technologies in music as a major. This degree option is designed to explore the intersection of music, technology, industry, and research.

Bukvic, who co-founded the program, said it offers two educational tracks. One prepares students to compose music using the latest technologies, as well as a combination of technology and traditional instruments. The other focuses on researching new instruments for musical expression, as well as innovative sound and music-related topics, such as converting data into sound through a process called sonification.

“For me, being part of the creative technologies program means being part of a well-rounded community that is eager to push boundaries,” said Hachem. “We tend to be skilled in both music and computers, and our interests span an enormous range of topics.”

Bukvic said the partnership between Sensel and L2Ork began in 2018 at the New Interfaces for Musical Expression international conference he co-organized and hosted within Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology.

The company operated a demo booth during the conference. Peter Nyboer, Sensel’s product strategist, was impressed with Virginia Tech’s facilities, students, and transdisciplinary initiatives. As the partnership developed, Bukvic and Nyboer began exploring ways to empower the growing international community of Purr-Data users and creatives to explore the power of Sensel’s Morph controller. Bukvic suggested using the collaboration as a research opportunity for a student majoring in creative technologies in music.

“Their studios and performance spaces are world-class, their students were easy to engage, and their commitment to extending and improving Purr-Data made it really attractive to work with Ico and Rachel on this,” said Nyboer. “Because it’s open source in an active community, we look forward to seeing how developers extend and implement new interfaces with the Morph and Purr-Data.”

Bukvic said the partnership exemplifies opportunities available through the creative technologies in music degree.  

“This opportunity is exactly what we had in mind when developing the degree program: students working on applied, industry-relevant projects,” said Bukvic. “Rachel’s work will serve as an important contribution to the Purr-Data community, as well as a powerful inspiration for her peers.”

Written by Andrew Adkins