TouchKeys multi-touch keyboard: from the lab to the stage

Andrew McPherson is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Digital Music, School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, Queen Mary University of London.

Millions of people know how to play the piano, and hundreds of thousands of electronic keyboards are sold each year. However, despite technological advances, the basic design of the piano keyboard hasn't changed in over a century. This raises a question: is it possible to digitally extend the capabilities of the keyboard, while retaining its familiarity to performers?

The TouchKeys are an augmented instrument I have been developing at Queen Mary University of London since 2011, with support from the EPSRC. The TouchKeys add multi-touch sensing to the surface of any keyboard, letting the player add expressive techniques like vibrato, pitch bends and timbre changes simply by moving the fingers on the key surfaces. The instrument can be used to naturally control string and wind instrument sounds from the keyboard, or to create completely new musical effects.

An important focus of my research has been to support pianists' existing training. A completely unfamiliar instrument, no matter its technical merit, could require years of effort before a performer becomes proficient. Studying how pianists move their fingers on the keys during traditional piano playing has helped identify "gaps" in technique - actions that normally have no meaning which can be repurposed.

In 2013, after three years of research and five hardware revisions, I launched the TouchKeys to the public on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The campaign raised over £46,000 and generated 25 online articles and substantial social media activity. In a review in Sound on Sound magazine in June 2014, Hugh Robjohns wrote:

Even in the relatively short time I spent with the system, its innate mechanical playability and the phenomenal potential for unparalleled expressive performance control was very obvious. The nice thing about TouchKeys is that it builds upon existing keyboard techniques and that means the learning curve is fairly shallow.

Since the Kickstarter campaign, public sales of TouchKeys kits have continued, including a second large production run in 2015. The technology is currently being spun out by QMUL into an independent company to reach a larger segment of the keyboard market.

You must select the video player for these keys to function.

Keyboard shortcut Function
Spacebar Play/Pause when the seek bar is selected. Activate a button if a button has focus.
Play/Pause Media Key on keyboards Play / Pause.
K Pause/Play in player.
Stop Media Key on keyboards Stop.
Next Track Media Key on keyboards Moves to the next track in a playlist.
Left/Right arrow on the seek bar Seek backward/forward 5 seconds.
J Seek backward 10 seconds in player.
L Seek forward 10 seconds in player.
Home/End on the seek bar Seek to the beginning/last seconds of the video.
Up/Down arrow on the seek bar Increase/Decrease volume 5%.
Numbers 1 to 9 on the seek bar (not on the numeric pad) Seek to the 10% to 90% of the video.
Number 0 on the seek bar  (not on the numeric pad) Seek to the beginning of the video.
Number 1 or Shift+1 Move between H1 headers.
/ Go to search box.
F Activate full screen. If full screen mode is enabled, activate F again or press escape to exit full screen mode. 
C Activate closed captions and subtitles if available. To hide captions and subtitles, activate C again. 
Shift+N Move to the next video (If you are using a playlist, will go to the next video of the playlist. If not using a playlist, it will move to the next YouTube suggested video).
Shift+P Move to the previous video. Note that this shortcut only works when you are using a playlist.