The Oblique Palette

The Oblique Palette

The Oblique Easel hardware is composed of two types of module: the Easel, containing the computation and touchscreen; and the input/output Palette, containing interfaces to physical controls and other devices. I’m developing them together not so they have a perfect, final shape, but so they are properly designed as a modular system that can be expanded and modified as the ideas evolve.

The current state of the Easel prototype. It’s a 15″ vertical touchscreen on top of an abundantly heatsinked Raspberry Pi 4 running plugdata as its primary interface.

The Easel is a computer and its graphical interface, optimized for autodidactic creation, utilizing a graphical programming environment and touchscreen so it can take up minimal table space while offer maximum human interplay with the “guts” of the software you’re creating. You use it to look at and design the digital logic of your project, turning the output of the Palette’s perceptrons into usable information like musical notes, coördinates, or timespans. The patch being build by the creator then reports back to the Palette the processed output as sounds, servo movements or control voltages while its own screen portrays any visual feedback.

A sketch of he Oblique Palette’s face. Inputs are in warmer colors to the top and right. In this sketch, outputs are in cooler colors to the left and bottom. At the top, you can see an example of an input tile on the panel, a 3cm square with a potentiometer knob, an aux-style plug compatible with Eurorack synthesizers, and a three-prong Dupont connector familiar to experimenters and radio control enthusiasts alike.

The Palette is the module that sits where you might expect a keyboard on a desktop computer. It’s the interface between your created process and the real world. It has inputs — digital buttons that can give binary data to your Easel the way keys on your keyboard do — and analog potentiometers that give contiguous data, more like a mouse or joystick or the knobs on the front of a stereo do.

A mockup of a single tile of the analog input section working from a different color scheme. With nothing plugged in, the dial itself gives a continuous set of possible values to be used as a creator requires. Either of the plugs can be used creatively in whatever way the creator wants to, with the top right one taking Eurorack-standard input values and the bottom one accepting anything else. Both inputs are protected from out-of-range voltages or dangerous current draw, common mistakes to make while experimenting.

I love a modular system. When your inputs are standardized with everyone else’s inputs, it gives you incredible creative flexibility. It’s the reason LEGO, bicycles, hot rods, Eurorack synthesizers, and web sites work.

This modular architecture affords us some really fun flexibility. It means that parts can be manufactured separately or for different purposes, but as long as they use standard ways to connect to other things, the ways those parts connect multiplies by the number of creations that connect to each point.

I can work on The Oblique Easel because you support the xenophilia Patreon.

What this means in the case of the Oblique Palette is that I can design a Palette that makes sense for the use cases I imagine: schools and Makerspaces, teenage hackers learning how to get their heads around new creative ideas, musicians who want to design their own instruments.

The current Easel prototype with a handful of analog inputs and analog audio outputs working.

But I don’t have to be right. If I start manufacturing such devices, there will be revisions first, making the product fit common real world use cases. But then, too, will come the specific needs of particular creators. It might need to fit into a Eurorack case or a guitar pedal enclosure. Maybe it needs XLR connectors or higher fidelity audio. Maybe it needs 20 analog inputs and no audio at all.

All of those Palettes can be completely compatible with the Easel because they share the same protocols: USB and a custom, expandable Easel protocol. It doesn’t matter to me that their pedal takes Mic level inputs. It doesn’t matter that it reads a giant spinning ball or a gyroscope or a sequencer — musical or gene. That’s their problem to solve.

The solution I offer is: Make it communicate via a MIDI Sysex protocol designed into the system with USB and it will work fine.

Contrarily, the Easel module itself could, in principle, be any laptop. But it would be bad. It will waste table space for its keyboard and trackpad or mouse. The screen will be hard to read behind the Palette. It will assume that you’re sitting, not standing at a workbench or performing on stage. It will give you text reminders and waste cycles on updating Steam in the background while your robot is trying to dance. But it could also be a computer and human interface designed for anything a human creator might need. It could need more computing power or multiple screens. It might run a virtual reality system in parallel with the plugdata interface or it might need to do its computing inside a costume. Designing every use case is likewise not my problem.

The solution I offer is: Make it communicate via the MIDI Sysex protocol designed into the system with USB and it will work fine.

None of the core technologies of the Easel and Palette are new. What’s new is the way the ideas are able to communicate with each other. What’s new is:

  • The design care being poured into the plugdata interface with its vast powers
  • The design of the Easel so that it encourages exploration and creativity, rather than selling repeatable productivity
  • The design of the Palette to introduce concepts in such a way that novices learn not to fear failure and become amateurs who become experts who teach novices.

And the modular interfaces between them give creators on all levels a way to make the things they want, then to share them with each other. I intend the Oblique easel to be the most beautiful center of a complex, community-driven creative ecosystem.

Modular systems are a function of industrial society. But do people of The Fifth World still know how to agree to standards? With their acute interest in efficiency, I think they might have carried that lesson forward!

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