Practice, Practice, Practice

Ashlynn Dewey just sent me links to a new Nike+ ad that she ran across that reminded her of our physical computing class(thanks, Ash!). It’s a great video that shows a couple of supercool Japanese DJs making music on specially equipped Nike shoes. I really enjoyed it. Then I saw the “making of” video.

Here’s the original video:

Now, if you have any experience with physical computing or microcontrollers, you’ve got a sense of what’s going on: a couple of flex sensors, a microcontroller sending serial data (maybe MIDI?) and an audio program on the backend to make the sounds. Nowdays it’s pretty easy to accomplish, and I’m pleased that it doesn’t take an engineering degree anymore to do this kind of thing.  It should be easy for the average person who’s into making music to do it with a pair of shoes, or any other object out there. So then check out the “making of” video:

This video gives me very mixed feelings.  On the one hand, thanks for sharing it, Nike. On the other hand, it’s not advanced engineering anymore. It’s hobbyist material. You don’t need to impress us with how you “developed software to compensate for the sensors.” There’s plenty of software out there to do the compensation already. You don’t need to impress us with how hard it was for the engineers to put their work into the hands of artists.  Artists can build their own damn shoes already, and engineers are plenty capable of expressing themselves creatively through music.  The border between the two is much blurrier than Nike shows it to be, thanks to a lot of engineers and artists who’ve been working together for decades to make it easier to cross from one to the other. I think the video would have been so much cooler if they’d shown the DJs themselves making the shoes. Let’s start promoting the mixing of disciplines as cool, why don’t we?

On the other hand, thanks for stressing the importance of practicing with the instrument. That’s incredibly important, and often gets overlooked in classes like mine, where we teach you how to build the thing, but there’s never enough time to practice with it. That’s something that performers bring to the table that engineers and other makers often overlook.  Once the thing is built, they figure it should be done.  We discount the value of learning to play the instrument, and therefore we don’t spend enough time making the instrument learnable. That means making it robust, making the interface clear, the responses repeatable, and the action reliable.  That’s something that did come out in the video that made me very happy.

Bottom line: thanks, Nike for a cool video.  And thanks for showing how it was made. Next time, though, show us how we can make it ourselves.  That’d be even cooler.

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