Alex Nowitz > Reflections on using Wiimotes in Musical Practice

Some Thoughts about using the Wii Remote Controller in Musical Practice


1. The Wii controller works without wires. This gives the performer freedom in movements for hands and arms. He/she is also able to move around in the performance space and doesn’t necessarily have to stay next to the computer.

2. All electronic components needed, like sensors, board, buttons, batteries, etc. are all placed within the controller. The packaging is very well done!

3. However, it’s a small device which is handy, easy to grab and light in weight!

4. The Wii has buttons that don’t make much noise at all! This is crucial especially if the Wiis are used to control electronics in the context of chamber and/or acoustic music.

5. Two AA-batteries or equivalent rechargeable ones are needed for the use of one Wii and last for many hours, for a considerable amount of time.

6. The Wii show almost no latency assuming a powerful computer is provided!

7. The Wii is affordable and easy to get.

8. The Wii is stable and doesn’t seem to break easily. I use two of them for three years now and they never broke so far.

Disadvantages and Limitations:
1. Main issue is the connectivity of the Wii. Bluetooth technology seems to work fine once the Wii/s is/are connected. Unfortunately, the connecting procedure itself can take some time and is depending on factors, which are unclear. If other blue tooth devices are turned on in the same room as well may cause some troubles in connecting. Even WLAN seems to be a source of interference. The problems probably remain as long as Apple doesn’t want to work on the enhancement of the bluetooth protocol in the operating system.

2. If the accelerometer sensors are used to control parameters in music, like definite pitches, it is difficult for the musician to play with in an accurate manner. The sensor shows a considerable latency time if directions are changed quickly to a different or, even more, to the opposite direction. The sensor keeps on measuring the movement first started and then, after a certain amount of time, the measurement data change to the new, wanted direction. To a certain degree, this can be balanced with the connectivity software junXion. But there are definite limitations simply due to the technology of accelerometer sensors.

3. Unless you don’t hack the Wii there are four ways of playing it according to the way it is designed for playing games:
a) It’s more than obvious that the thumb is the main finger designated to play the controller.
b) Index finger is used for B-Button on the backside.
c) Certainly there are other ways to use the Wii, but are less conventional. The Wii can be held by thumb, ring and little finger whereas index and middle finger are then able to play the upper arrow-buttons (more likely the ones to the right and left), A-button as well as plus and minus-button. HOME-button is a bit awkward to play with, but possible as well.
d) The Wii can even be used as some sort of a keyboard if you hold it with just the thumb on its backside and use the front panel to play on: arrow-buttons by index finger, button 1 and 2 by little finger and, accordingly, the other buttons by the fingers in between. Admittedly, it’s not very convenient, but it’s possible.
Applying method a) and b) in combination is the most common way of playing the Wii. Taking into consideration that there are 11 buttons in total of which only one is played by the index finger and the rest of 10 by the thumb, one may say it’s a “thumb instrument”, not so different compared to a kalimba f.i. In consequence, the thumb finger suffers a lot of stress if the musician uses the controller on a daily basis and within the context of professional music making. One may have to develop awareness for joint problems and strategies to avoid those! The common way of using the thumb is grabbing and holding things, whereas fine motor skills remain reserved to the other four fingers, especially if rapid and repetitive movements are applied which are much easier and smoother executed by the other four fingers than by the thumb.


However, for all the reasons mentioned above in paragraphe A) I think the Wii-controller is still a very powerful instrument tool to be used in order to create and generate, shape and mould electronic sound and music. But not only that, also the visual aspect of such a performance benefits as a variety of gestures and a unique vocabulary of gestural expressions may evolve just simply along the way.

Personal Prospect:
With the help and support of STEIM, in particular Bjungjun Kwon (electronics), Frank Baldé (software/patch), Daniel Schorno (patch) and visual artist Florian Göttke (hardware/ergonomics), we are now building a new electronic instrument from scratch. Commercial components like game controllers are no longer used or in other words misused anymore. The first prototype of the instrument will be finished in January 2011.
However, I will keep on playing with the Wiis. Together with the computer, the software part of junXion, LiSa and the specific implementations, they form an instrument that needs to be practised and performed in its own way which is unique enough to be not discontinued.

Alex Nowitz
November 17, 2010

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