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Last Updated: Monday, 13 February 2006, 08:41 GMT
How to be a rock star, virtually
By David Sillito
BBC News arts correspondent

Photo by Tommi Kohonen

There are usually only two things that stop most adolescent males from being guitar "rock gods" - lack of a guitar and a total lack of talent.

Now a group of young Finnish scientists have found a way to overcome these little obstacles.

The Virtual Air Guitar can be mastered in just a few seconds.

You simply put on a pair of orange gloves, stand in front of a camera which is attached to a computer and the software reads your hand movements to create music, of a sort.

There are two basic programs: chords and solo. The chords on offer are perhaps a little basic but even the most musically inept can, within a minute or two, produce the opening riff to Deep Purple's classic Smoke on the Water.

One member of the team behind the project, Aki Kanerva at the Helsinki University of Technology, said the tune was ideal as it was both "easy to play and has the right spirit of rock".


But it is the "solo" function that truly unlocks the guitar's potential.

Jimi Hendrix
Rock legend Jimi Hendrix was renowned for his guitar solos
Simply by frantically waggling your hands in a vague imitation of playing a guitar you can do a passable impression of a guitar soloist.

Aki's performance saw him playing behind his head and on his back. All he had to do was to keep his little orange gloves within sight of the camera.

All of which means that the player can reserve most of his (or perhaps her, though this seems to be a largely male pursuit) energies for the important part of air guitar.

That is, leaping around and gurning in to your crotch as if suddenly seized with acute appendicitis, the pain of which can only be assuaged by pretending to hold on to a particularly lively invisible ferret.

Strangely this is a skill millions of teenagers once possessed, but it is now an art more likely to be practiced by middle-aged men with extensive video libraries of old episodes of Top Gear.

New ambitions

So what is the point?

Well, it is oddly gratifying to be able to appear capable of playing the guitar. Plus the noise is satisfyingly loud and rock-like.

German electro pioneers Kraftwerk rarely broke sweat on stage
But there are other issues. The first is about the future of video games.

Many within the industry think the physical limits imposed by the controller and the keyboard will always put off some people.

Finding an interface between the virtual and real world that does away with the control could open up completely different games, ones that go beyond the current concepts behind games technology.

Many people have already humiliated themselves in public playing dancing games. Now the games companies want domestic games that offer a chance to fight, paint and play music without having to fiddle with a bit of plastic.

The team at the Telecommunications Software and Multimedia Laboratory and the Acoustics Laboratory at the Helsinki University of Technology have already developed a small orchestra of virtual instruments.

These include a painting programme and Kick Ass Kung-Fu, which demands that the player actually performs all the moves.

If anyone worries that video games turn children into couch potatoes then 10 minutes of watching the Kung Fu game would provide suitable reassurance.

Performance revived

The second issue is about the future of music and synthesisers on stage.

The virtual air guitar in use
Just stand in the front of the screen... and rock!
The problem is a simple one: they are deadly dull to watch.

German synth-meisters Kraftwerk made a virtue from their static stage presence. But there is a limit to bands performing as though they are filling in their online tax returns.

The Orb once gave up altogether and appeared on Top of the Pops playing chess while the tune Blue Room played around them.

The instruments developed by Aki Kanerva, Juha Laitinen, Teemu Maki-Patola, Matti Karjalainen and Perttu Hamalainen allow performers to play synthesisers with a dramatic physical flourish.

It also allows electronic music to have a more human quality. This new interface brings together the sonic possibilities of the virtual world with the infinite variation of human movement.

When the virtual air guitar reaches the shops in 2007, remember: this is more than just an excuse for having a go at that fiddly bit in your favourite rock anthem.


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