Live virtual performance is a musical first

January 4th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Campus News

avatars at the floor piano in Second Life

Avatars play the floor piano in Second Life.

A concert with no stage, instruments or musicians? While it may sound like something out of a Harry Potter book, a recent musical performance by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Professor Barbara McLain’s music and composition students did just that.

The concert took place in a three dimensional virtual world known as Second Life. The instrument used was a virtual floor piano played simultaneously by five avatars—the online embodiments of McLain’s music students—some of whom were thousands of miles away at the time of the performance.

“What most people do is stream music into Second Life from somewhere else, while their avatars look like they are singing or playing an instrument,” explains McLain of the lively, in-world music scene. “But the avatars are really lip syncing, just pretending to play the music and sing.”

Similarly, an avatar can beat a drum in Second Life, and have it look and sound like it is playing taiko drums or participating in a drum circle. But the music is on an mp3 loop and the beat is determined by lag time, the delays brought about vis-á-vis different connection speeds and browser configurations.

Barbara McLain headshot


“The floor piano actually creates sound when you touch it. So I thought we’d try a little experiment with the class to see if we could create music in real time,” explains McLain. She assigned her class to do arrangements of popular songs like Chopsticks and Happy Birthday for five avatars on the floor piano. The student avatars then log in at the same time and read the musical notation, playing their part in a unique live performance.

Having initiated the first online degree program at UH some 10 years ago, McLain remains deeply committed to training her colleagues in distance learning technology. And she knows first-hand the bumps that that technology can throw at online learning.

“What we found was that the lag time prevented it from being flawless, or at least as good as it could have been,” she admits with some circumspection. “But it is an exciting possibility for what the future holds for music learning and collaboration.”

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