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The Speaking Orbs in more detail.

The shiny Orbs themselves were old '70s track lighting that were being discarded. I went to my buddy Greg Hilborn at work and told him I was looking for "something like an eyeball" for embedding a video camera for another crazy project I was working on. Greg showed me the track lighting and I snatched it up. Those Orbs were begging for a new life.

Within a week the Orbs had photo resistors inside them, and for a gig I planted them around a club and passed out flashlights to the audience. The audience could play along with my industrial set by shining the flashlights into the orbs nearest them to trigger samples of private cell phone conversations. This was before sampling cell phone conversations was common. The artistic concept was that shining a harsh, bright flashlight into a dark, safe space (the Orb) was invasive. To hear a snippet of a private conversation that was "stolen" as the feedback for this invasive action seemed appropriate. By the way, you would be surprised at the way couples talk to each other when they think nobody is listening.

My original version of the Orbs as a stand alone sound sculpture included a separate lamp that arched over them, and an additional center Orb. The original version was done on a budget of zero and at the last minute for an event that was coming up, so the platter that held the Orbs was the end of a found wooden rope reel, the stand was an old chain barrel, and the lamp was from a thrift store. I painted everything black, and put black blower hose over the lamp to make it look industrial. The shade of the lamp was my favorite bread mixing bowl that I reluctantly drilled out and installed in the wee hours when the hardware stores were closed. I still miss that bowl.

The current version of the Orbs that are on display at the EMP have a new housing that was designed and built by the EMP. It is WAY more robust and kid proof. And beautiful. It also has a nice sound system and a big disk at the top that makes it look like a time machine or a robot. The disk offers the resistors shade during the day and reflects the sound back to the user.

The brain behind the orbs is the MidiToolkit computer ( from ) and the "custom instrument" expansion board. The Orbs are a midi controller that only sends "note on" and "note off" information to a midi sound module. My favorite sound module is a Wavestation, and that is what has been used at previous installations. I like the way you can program waves to evolve and change over time. Since the Orbs rest in a "note on" state, Walking in to a room to hear the chorus of Wavestation sounds washing over you is delightful. It's like hiking in to a waterfall. At the EMP the Orbs drive a Proteus which plays a single bell or chime sound most of the time. And once the note fades it is still "on", but the sound has faded, and it is waiting for a re-triggering.

The switches in the Orbs are photo resistors. I originally used the cheap assortment pack from Radio Shack - they all seemed to work about the same. The EMP crew installed matching resistors.

With the built-in lights turned on, all notes are in a "note on" state. If you cover a resistor the "note off" message is sent, and when you uncover it, it's back to "note on".

If you think of the Orbs as a windchime you will be able to imagine how they sound and how they play. The difference is that instead of physically touching the Orbs, you play them by waving your hands (or an object like a paddle or a feather) anywhere between the light and the opening of the Orb.

All ages of folks have interacted with the Orbs. If you keep thinking "wind chimes" for audio and interaction, and then look at how "cool" the sculpture looks you can see that there is an appeal for a wide range of folks. I have seen punks play this thing. Babies get held up to it. I have seen the president of Boeing's commercial aircraft division playing it with some other suits. Total strangers will gather around this thing and start waving their hands as if they are conducting an invisible orchestra. My friend Julius was one of the first to play it. He "swam" through the light and it was really beautiful.

It can be enjoyed by one person or with multiple participants.

People collaborate easily on the Orbs. There are no bad notes, so there are no mistakes. Therefore what the user gets from the experience is something like joy and positive reinforcement. At the EMP I've had the pleasure of swinging by just to watch people interact with the Orbs. As I observe I make notes and think about my next project.

Einar Ask