Defamiliarized Music Making (Usability Study)

In December 2019, I conducted a usability study exploring a defamiliarized, making-strange approach to music-led, virtual reality using my VR experience, The Water Is Always Running. The study was guided by the following research statement:

This work presents an unusual music-making environment, a 3D kitchen with dishwashing simulation, to explore how a making-strange approach to musical interaction and participation can heighten the awareness of process for the user. To explore this work, I ask the research questions: 

How can a fluxus approach to participatory music composition leverage environmental metaphors and affordances? Can a making-strange approach to musical interaction heighten the user’s awareness of their interactions? How can a meaningful and participatory musical interaction balance between functional and creative user experiences?

Participants were asked establishing questions to gauge their familiarity with virtual reality and domestic tasks before beginning. They were given no instructions upon entering into the virtual space other than a.) that they had total freedom to do what they wanted; there was no wrong way to interact in the virtual environment, and b.) the experience was finished when they decided it was finished, at which point, they could remove their headset.

Participation was captured in real time as well as a post-participation interview and observations session. Publication of results are forthcoming.

Project Design:

The Water Is Always Running initially featured a simpler virtual kitchen than the final product: sink, sponge, and four plates. Each plate corresponded to two musical voices in an eight voice composition with each voice being synced in tempo and length. The graph below visualizes the initial design of the composition. However, in pre-study prototype sessions it became apparent quickly that the relationship between the plates and the music was more convoluted than desired and this complication was, in fact, due to the on-paper simplicity of the mapping. Feedback consistently pinned the music as feeling simply as a "soundtrack to dishwashing" instead of the primary vehicle of the experience.

The problem ended up being one of feedback: when each change in state was locked in step by tempo and loop length, it becomes difficult to discern the influence the user has over the changes in the music. It also ignores the spatial nature of the experience. A series of changes were made to remedy this problem:

  • The music was no longer tempo-locked and loops no longer transition in a way that keeps the sequence of every loop locked together.

  • Instead of featuring two voices per plate for a total of four plates, all eight voices were separated out into individual dishes.

  • Playback speed on each dish was also dictated by the Y-axis in the virtual environment. A shelf on which a number of plates were placed was added to help teach this functionality to users.

  • The original method of shutting a plate off (throwing it off the platform) was replaced by a dish rack on the counter. Do to the limitations of the Leap Motion Controller, it's easy to accidentally fling a plate off the platform. Doing so now respawns the dish on the counter.

The design of the composition (with twice as many dishes) is now as such:

 © 2020 by zach buckley.

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