Tech Page: UI: TNG

User interface: the next generation.
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FIG. 1: In this example, the Universal Interface Panel has ten -faders and one knob. The panel can also show any other graphics, such as the video you''re scoring.

When I was studying music at California State University, Northridge, I served as the technical director of the school's computer-music lab, which had as its centerpiece an early prototype of what would become the Synclavier. During that time nearly 30 years ago, I remember hearing about Denny Jaeger, who directed the development of the Synclavier II.

Since then, Jaeger has kept busy with all sorts of projects, including scoring films, programming synths for sessions, and creating sample libraries. Most recently, he has been deeply involved in developing a new concept for user interfaces, which could revolutionize how people interact with computers in all sorts of activities, including music.

Jaeger started a company called NBOR (No Boundaries or Rules) to foster a variety of technologies,including what Jaeger calls the Universal Interface Panel (UIP). Protected by 27 patents, the UIP solves a fundamental problem that arose when computers became part of the music industry — that is, the cognitive disconnect between physical controls and their virtual counterparts.

For one thing, physical controls on a mixer or other such device are in one location, while the computer screen is usually somewhere else. Perhaps even more important, physical control surfaces have a fixed layout to which users must adapt, and in many cases, the controls have fixed functions. Even if you can reassign specific controls to do different things — say, a fader that can adjust volume or reverb time — you must remember what those assignments are. Wouldn't it be great if the physical controls could be laid out in any way that best suited each user, and their labels and graphics reflected what they controlled at any given moment?

That's the idea behind the UIP. The system starts with a conventional flat-panel video display and adds a thin glass layer over the screen. You can take various small physical controls out of your pocket or a drawer and place them almost anywhere on the screen. The panel can be programmed to display any sort of label and other markings at that location to indicate what the control does as well as its current setting (see Fig. 1).

So far, NBOR has developed two types of controls: knobs and faders. Knobs can be placed anywhere, and they are designed to stick to the glass layer, though not so tightly that they can't be removed and placed elsewhere as needed. Each knob sends its position and movement in the form of RF (radio-frequency) signals to a small receiver that connects to the computer via USB. The receiver can accommodate up to six knobs, all operating independently with less than 1 ms of latency, and multiple receivers can be used simultaneously.

A fader consists of a thin strip of plastic, which is mounted at the bottom of the glass layer, and a separate fader cap. When you place a fader cap over one end of a strip, they magnetically couple, causing the strip to move with the cap as it rolls back and forth on little wheels. As the strip moves, it turns a high-precision encoder within the armrest of the fader chassis. The encoder measures the strip's exact position with an accuracy of 6,000 ppi (points per inch). In addition, the encoder is attached to a motor that can move the strip, providing fader automation.

According to Jaeger, NBOR has worked for years to perfect the magnetic coupling between the fader cap and strip as well as the tactile “feel” of the controls, which must exhibit just enough resistance to provide the right amount of feedback to the user. The UIP should be commercially available sometime this year, and I, for one, can't wait to try it out.