A Brief History of Multi-Touch Computer Control

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Modern television is filled with shows about high-tech crime investigators, and the detectives in these shows almost always use touch screen computers. Often times their futuristic computers take the form of a large glass wall in the center of the room, where at the touch of a finger an officer can instantly display a suspect’s file. The entertainment world is fixated on predicting what touch screen technology will look like and how it will operate, even though it’s already here. Since 2007, gadgets like the iPod Touch have revolutionized how human beings interact with electronics.

But musicians were the first to explore the realm of multi-touch computer control. The JazzMutant Lemur was the world’s first multi-touch device, and for specific tasks it’s still the world’s best touch pad. The Lemur offers an open approach to multi-touch control, where self-expression and stability outshine the novelty of its historically ground-breaking interface.

Lemurs (the electronic device, not the little monkeys) are arguably best known for their appearance at the 50th annual 2008 Grammy Awards. The French electronic duo Daft Punk played live with Kanye West during his performance of the hit song “Stronger,” and they triggered and controlled the music with four Lemurs (and two robot costumes). If you’re unfamiliar with Daft Punk’s music, I strongly recommend listening to one of their albums from start to finish, it’s the kind of music that never sounds old. Daft Punk’s records are going to be around for a long time, and despite what some uninformed critics have to say, so is the JazzMutant Lemur.

In the business world, it’s always a nice little perk not to have any direct competition. This is one of the luxuries that developing an advanced innovation can afford you. When the designers at JazzMutant initiated their work on the Lemur in 2001, they immediately hit a rather large stumbling block. The marketplace of manufacturers that supply multi-touch screens to other companies were all missing one item on their menus. Not a single company offered a touch-screen that could recognize more than one finger. JazzMutant had to start from scratch writing the code and finding the materials that could bring the concept of a multi-touch controller to life.

Enormous challenges are often the stuff that drives you to create your best work. The JazzMutant's designers (Julien Oliver, Pascal Joguet, and Guillaume Largillier) had discovered a glaring hole in the marketplace, so they rolled up their sleeves, picked up their shovels, and they filled it. When the Lemur finally became commercially available in 2005 (two years before the iPhone), artists and musicians around the world suddenly had a tool that could make previously impossible ideas possible. For several years there was nothing that came close to the power the Lemur afforded. It wasn’t until Apple brought touch to their products that anything even remotely resembling a competitor for the Lemur emerged.

What Apple has done with touch control is amazing, but compared to the Lemur, their products are a very different animal. The Lemur is a purpose-built creative tool designed for musicians, DJs, video artists, lighting techs, and anyone with an idea to build something completely original in Max/MSP. It’s a networked device that attaches to Mac and Windows computers through an Ethernet cable. This Ethernet connection model gives the user total confidence in their equipment.


 

Music controller apps that run on the iPad require that you set up a wireless router or a Bluetooth link. You also have to run an additional application on your main computer that allows the iPad to communicate with the main computer. If the user is performing on a live broadcast of a major awards show, they would be putting a lot at risk if their whole performance was relying on a wireless connection. Have you ever been using WiFi to surf the web and your connection disappears for a minute? For many artists, this is not acceptable. A serious artist needs hardware that won’t fail during mission-critical situations.

The failsafe Ethernet link isn’t the only strong selling point that makes the Lemur a great product. Even more impressive is JazzEditor. It’s an application that comes with the Lemur that enables the user to create any kind of custom interface they desire. Everyone interacts with software differently. Buying a hardware MIDI controller can be really difficult, because you can’t be sure if it has all of the faders, buttons, and knobs that you’re going to need. If your needs change, the plastic faders and rubber buttons on your hardware controller will not. Being able to create custom interfaces with JazzEditor is a huge advantage. For creative artists, this is what really makes theLemur the be-all end-all. The multi-touch interface is just the awesome icing on the cake.


 

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a JazzMutant Lemur for a week. I learned very quickly that the Lemur is far from being a plug-and-play device. Setting one up requires a good bit of patience and concentration. When I first got the screen to come alive, I immediately started moving faders and twiddling graphic representations of knobs and buttons. The responsiveness of theLemur’s touch screen wasn’t as slick as my iPhone, but I got used to it pretty quickly, and it worked really well. Putting all ten of your fingers on the screen at once and seeing the Lemur react to them is pretty awesome. 

The first thing I tried with the Lemur is Mu (pronounced as “Mew”). Mu is a free controller plug-in that allows the Lemur to fully control Ableton Live 8. If you own Live 8 and its separately available plug-in called Max for Live, you can get into Mu. Mu gives the user complete integrated control over Ableton Live, without the need to map anything.

If you use Apple’s Logic Studio, a similar application is available called Dexter, which gives you complete pre-mapped control. Dexter is a little more ambidextrous than Mu, because it offers the same power over Cubase, Nuendo, and Cakewalk’s Sonar. Because of the added muscle, Dexter needs to be purchased and downloaded from JazzMutant’s website.

I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the years, but I’ve never been a police officer. I can’t say whether your average police station has such advanced touch screen technology inside its doors. But I’m guessing that the futuristic mega-computers on television are pure fiction, and that most cops have to grind away using average networked PCs like everybody else. If you’re looking to get a touch-control system running for your work, don’t waste time waiting for what may or may not be. Get the tool you know you can rely on, and don’t look back.

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Wow this look like a fancy ipad....pretty neat

I wish I would have seen this before I went out and got the ipad!?!?

This is the first time I've heard about it, but I really like my ipad.

Maybe next time around

So is this the pre-ipad touch screen controller.  Looks pretty cool and seems like the ipad is even better since it is smaller and wireless.  Technology is amazing how fast things go out of date.

The lemur has been around for 6 years.  (fyi)

Actually, "multi-touch" screen technology has been around since at least 1984.  Check out this overview by interface guru Bill Buxton: http://www.billbuxton.com/multitouchOverview.html

I like to argue that any device (such as a mixer, or a traditional musical instrument) that receives multiple inputs simultaneously could be called "multi-touch".  But in this context I think it's fair to say that JazzMutant laid a great deal of groundwork for multi-touch sceen music applications, and Apple brought the technology to the masses (with the iPhone).  Fascinating work with other related devices such as Tangible interfaces (like the Reactable, where objects moved about on a projection surface are recognized and produce music and or visual effects) are a must-see for anyone interested in the potential of this type of technology.

It looks really cool and expensive but I really wonder about how steep the learning curb is for someone fairly new to all of this but in the business? 

Please do some more research next time. iPad does NOT require a wireless router to connect to the computer. You can connect them directly by creating an "ad-hoc network" from your computer. And most music apps use wifi, not bluetooth.

It's so ridiculous that some people label the iPad a "content consumption" device. The number of content creation apps on the iPad/iPhone are staggering, dwarfing what is available on the Lemur, which is only a controller. People are making great art, music, and writing on the iPad. It's not about whether something is an expensive "serious tool". It's about the imagination and creativity of the user.

Interesting article and responses!

I have a question and it's probably a silly one at that!  Since you can hook up a USB to the iPad via the Camera Kit, couldn't that be used to hardwire an iPad to a computer?  My only thought was that the iPad is set up for basic USB protocal only, so a controller would not have enough customization options to work properly.

Like I said, dumb question, but would love to be set straight on this!

Andy

I always defer to Jim on computer issues.  He knows everything!

FYI: If you want hands-on with the LEMUR you should check it out at the B&H Store.  It was just put on display and being setup right now on one of the demo DAW's... 

Verrrry neat.

You don't even have to be human to create music anymore! (well, something like it, at least)

Of course, it's lots of fun, and music seems to be quite avante-guard today, so I guess it's in the hands of the masses to do what they see fit.

Soooo, nobody will have to buy anyone else's music as they can create their own.

Quality?

Well, that a whole 'nother thing.

eat your hear out, Jeff Beck!

Multi-touch computer control was introduced in the 1980s by Bill Buxton, in the context of computer graphics for the automotive industry, if memory serves me. There was an obvious human need for two-handed input, which was accommodated by Buxton's designs.  I believe he is at Microsoft today.

Ref: www.billbuxton.com