Some take their air guitar playing more seriously than others, but even for those exerting the most energy, those perfectly struck imaginary chords are heard by nobody's ears except their own. Aura, an electronic instrument that translates hand gestures into music, could be just what these highly animated faux musicians need to get a little more reward for their efforts.

The brainchild of Cornell University engineering student Ray Li, Aura uses a small base to create a magnetic field which detect magnetic sensors attached to the player's hands with custom-made gloves. These communicate the position and orientation of the hands within the field to a programmed interface, which then translates the data to MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) signals to be played through a synthesizer.

Pitch is controlled by raising and lowering the hands, while the volume can be cranked up by spreading the hands apart. Artists can get a bit more creative by closing their fingers to muffle the sounds or twisting their hands add some distortion. Beyond this innovative input process however, Li likens the instrument to a typical MIDI controller.

"How the Aura makes music, is that it just controls the software on my laptop," says Li. "There is infinite possibilities for the sounds that the Aura can make. It just sends out data, in terms of positions and different parameters, and those can be interpreted by many different software."

Li's vision for modernized, alternative music interfaces dates back to his sophomore year, where Sabre, his electronic cello was born. Conceived as a project for his circuits course, the instrument comprised a wooden base with conductive strips for strings and a joystick to manipulate the sound. On returning to study, Li began to hypothesize on how the instrument could be improved to allow for greater expressiveness.

"I went in thinking that I would build another version of the Sabre but with a motion sensor instead of a joystick," says Li. "After thinking about it more, I thought what if the whole thing was just a motion based instrument?"

Li's invention is to be featured in an upcoming presentation funded by the Cornell Council for the Arts called SoundSpace. In the meantime you can see a Li get hands on with the Aura in his demonstration video below.

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