Sensor Exploration + Hair as a String Instrument

This week I will briefly describe two upcoming projects: the first being my sensor report, the second being my MIDI instrument.

Sensor Report

I’ve chosen to test, explore, and review a circular soft potentiometer that I found on Adafruit. It took a couple of tries to find a sensor that a) I could envision using and b) met the criteria. Visually, I liked the way this ribbon sensor enlarged the small pot I’m used to touching, encouraging a much larger gesture, that uses the entire hand.


Hair String Instrument

Sandy and I have about 85% of our classes together, with similar goals. She spoke the other day in one of our classes about juxtaposing human emotions with code, which she feels can be cold at times. I too aim to create technology that is as human as possible, that tells a human story. How else can I make sense of my fine art and storytelling background?

She had an initial thought to use hair to create a MIDI instrument and my jaw fell to the floor. It was such an elegant, visual concept that I could see in my mind’s eye immediately. I was instantly sold and couldn’t wait to help bring this vision to life.

I loved that the instrument would be using an existing behavior, running fingers through and playing with one’s own hair, to create music. Brainstorming with her last night, there seemed to be a natural mapping between a string instrument and human hair. I could imagine a section of hair divided into notes. When the user runs their fingers slowly down one of the sections, it acts similarly to a bow on violin strings, playing a delicate and sustained note that tapers off. It would be beautiful to be able to play and layer these notes one on top of one another. Similarly, plucking a hair string could produce  a pizzicato effect the same way a musician would pluck a violin string.

We plan on using conductive thread (thanks Tom!), which I got a chance to play around with last night:

View this post on Instagram

Conductive thread! 😍

A post shared by Lauren Race (@lauren_race) on


The idea is to attach the thread to a circuit board (still looking into this) that is hidden by a hair fastener. Design-wise, we want to hide the circuitry and cords as much as possible so the piece feels like magic, perhaps inside a scrunchie or barrette. The strands of conductive thread would lay hidden amongst the hair. We still have to figure out how to hide the USB cord- maybe this is a good opportunity to play with a wireless microcontroller?

The other big hurdle is that the thread would be digital, i.e. you fingers are on or off the thread. We need to have a more analog experience where the user could pluck or stroke or tightly grip for a louder note, lightly touch for a softer note. There’s a lot to consider in a short time frame. Sandy’s suggested that this might be a project that we refine for the final if we’re feeling good about it.

I cannot wait to get started on this. It’s a huge stretch for me and I’m ready to meet the challenge and get a chance to work with Sandy.


2 thoughts on “Sensor Exploration + Hair as a String Instrument

  1. Uncle Wayne says:

    I think this is a really cool idea. If you could measure conductivity as a function of the length of the thread, perhaps that would give you a more analog ‘feeling’ . I was thinking about as your hand moved along the length of the thread, the frequency would change (not unlike a guitar).

    Another thought would be to change things as a function of how long you touch the thread, e.g. a short touch would be a high frequency, long touch would be low frequency (that might be more achievable in a short time frame).

    If you had multiple threads, thy could be assigned to different frequencies. Could you imagine a wig made of conductive thread?

    Good luck, you guys will do well.

    1. Lauren Race says:

      Uncle Wayne, this is awesome and super helpful. I think it’s a great solution for the first prototype. Thank you so much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *