Galleries: Design

Xiano portable instrument- final model
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ID 4011, Fall 2008

Initial Ideation

At the start of the project, I quickly decided to focus on making an instrument designed for college students. College students are in need of the benefits playing music offers, primarily calming and relaxing the mind, but no traditional instrument quite fits the unique needs of college students.

Initial design criteria:

  • Easily portable (fits in backpack)
  • Playable between classes
  • "Silent play" capable through headphones
  • For people with and without musical backgrounds
  • Capable of playing some existing sheet music
  • Utilize technology to attract and maintain interest

Use Scenarios:
The use scenarios below also show how some existing instruments fulfill some of the criteria, but not all. Even the most portable of the instruments shown, the harmonica, cannot be played in hallways between classes since it is not "silent play" capable.

Playing guitar for friends Practicing piano
Play for friends Practice in room
Relaxing under a tree Child playing harmonica
Play to relax Play anywhere

Research and Precedents

Early research, which took place before a direction was decided, involved many interesting electronic instruments, including the theremin, laser harp, and AirPiano. Ultimately, most of this research did not directly contribute to the final direction.

Once the final direction had been decided, it soon became clear that one type of instrument from my research was an ideal precedent: the MiniPiano and other similar piano applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch. There are several of these applications which utilize the device's touchscreen to provide an on-screen piano keyboard, usually a one-octave segment. This is a partial solution to my criteria, as it has the sound options required (sound can be heard through the internal speaker(s), through earbuds, or through external speakers) in an extremely portable form factor. However, these programs are crippled by their lack of tactile feedback and by the short range of notes that can be shown at a time.

Early sketch diagram
Preliminary diagram


This project required quick ideation in order to devote sufficient time to form and interaction development. As such, several quick decisions had to be made. Foremost of these was the decision to base the primary interaction off an electric piano. The model of a piano was chosen primarily for its relatively simple interaction (one key corresponds to one note) as well as its musical flexibility.

One-handed diagram
One-handed diagram
One-handed sketch model
One-handed sketch model

Touch strip concept

Development relied very heavily on sketch models, as the physical interaction and size of the design was of prime importance. The early concept of the device was built off the design of the Twiddler, a one-handed keyboard and mouse. Development for a one-handed device was soon dropped in favor of a two-handed device, since the strain on the hand involved with a hand strap would make playing with rhythm more difficult. Key combinations would be also be required to play more than a single octave, increasing the learning curve.

The second primary feature of the design is the touch-sensitive strip on the side, which emerged early in the process (as seen in the early diagram above.) This strip is a single-axis touch panel which can be used for several instruments or effects, including:

  • Theremin (single volume, finger position determines pitch)
  • Scales (like running up and down a xylophone)
  • Drums (multiple types at a time, based on finger position)
  • Piano pedals

Smaller study model
Small study model
Study model with back grip
Study model with back grip
Key size testing
Key size testing
Illustrator button development
Button development (Illustrator)
The best study model
The best study model
Xiano study models
Study models

Further development proceeded using study models to advance the overall shape, while sketching and Illustrator were used to develop the key design and layout. Since the keys are the primary mode of interaction, they went through many iterations before reaching a design that was ideal for the new format yet retained the pattern of a classic piano layout.

The final development stage saw the further refinement of the form, such as sloping the back to allow it to be played on a table, as well as the integration of a control interface into the back of the device.

Final Design

Xiano keyboard design
Keyboard design
Xiano touch strip
Touch strip
Xiano backlit keys- animation
Backlit keys

The final design was not just the last iteration of the study models, but also the unification of other, separately investigated design elements. Glass was chosen for the keys because of its visual appearance and tactile quality. Pianos and electric guintars inspired the use of high-gloss black plastic for the keyboard surface. A "chrome" bezel borders the keyboard and connects it to the matte-black primary housing. Blue electroluminescent elements behind the gloss black panel provide a blue glow around the keys.

The back of the device has a small OLED display coupled with a touch-sensensitive directional pad and a physical button which are used to adjust the device's settings. This interface is used to adjust the instrument and octave sets for the keypad as well as the behavior of the touch strip.

The name "Xiano" is a combination of the Greek prefix xeno- (alien) and "piano," since the final design struck me as something out of Star Trek.

Xiano- Grip options
Grip options
Xiano- Playing position
Playing position

The final design was illustrated with a quality physical model. Sign foam composes the majority of the model. Lasercut backpainted polyester is used for the top surface, touch strip, and the touch pad and display on the back. The "glass" keys are lasercut and beveled clear acrylic.

Xiano final model- Back interface
Back interface
Xiano final model- Ports and controls
Ports and controls
Xiano- Orthographic drawings
Orthographic drawings

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