Carolan Guitar Acquires Siblings

by Steve Benford, Mixed Reality Lab, University of Nottingham

The Nottingham project team has been developing a guitar called the Carolan guitar or Carolan (named after the legendary composer Turlough O’Carolan, the last of the great blind Irish harpers, and an itinerant musician who roamed Ireland at the turn of the 18th century, composing and playing beautiful celtic tunes). Like it’s namesake, Carolan is a roving bard; a performer that passes from place to place, learning tunes, songs and stories as it goes and sharing them with the people it encounters along the way. This is possible because of a unique technology that hides digital codes within the decorative patterns adorning the instrument. These act somewhat like QR codes in the sense that you can point a phone or tablet at them to access or upload information via the Internet. Unlike QR codes, however, they are aesthetically beautiful and form a natural part of instrument’s decoration. This unusual and new technology enables our guitar to build and share a ‘digital footprint’ throughout its lifetime, but in a way that resonates with both the aesthetic of an acoustic guitar and the craft of traditional luthiery.

We are now bringing you some exciting news. The Carolan has acquired some siblings, although you might be hard press to spot the family resemblance. The Carolan team ( has been collaborating with Andrew McPherson and his group at the Augmented Instruments Laboratory at Queen Mary to explore how they might decorate other musical instruments with their life stories. This collaboration that is part of the FAST project is aimed at exploring new forms of digital music object.

Andrew’s lab creates new musical instruments and also augments traditional ones with sensors, new types of sound production and new ways of interacting. A nice example of Andrew’s previous work was to augment traditional piano keyboards with capacitance sensors so that pianists could naturally create vibratos, bends and other effects by moving their fingers on individual keys – an idea called TouchKeys. See:

In a quite different vein, Andrew’s recent work has been exploring the design of ‘hackable instruments’, new forms of electronic instrument that while superficially simple, can be opened up and radically modified – ‘hacked’ – by musicians to create highly personalised instruments and performances. An early example is the D-Box, an electronic instrument that can easily be built from scratch and whose innards can be messed with in all sorts of ways without frying the circuitry. See:

This inherent hackability may lead to individual D-boxes becoming associated with rich histories of how they have been modified and used to create particular sounds and performances. This prompted the Carolan team to ask whether we might decorate D-Boxes with interactive patterns and so enable their owners to document and recall the unique history of hacks associated wih each instrument?

In January 2015, we hosted a FAST project workshop at the Mixed Reality Lab to build some D-Boxes and design some Artcodes (the new and more friendly name for Aestheticodes) that might be used to decorate them. First we assembled our D-Boxes …

artcode 1

FAST participants assembling D-boxes

Then we spent some time sketching Artcode decorations for them …

artcode 2

Participants sketching Artcode decorations for D-boxes

After the workshop, Adrian from the Carolan team designed a series of Artcode D-Box logos, a distinct one for each of six instruments. These were laser-etched and cut into the wooden sides of our D-boxes to create a family of instruments that can be scanned with a phone or tablet to read and update their individual blogs.

artcode 3

The family of six D-Boxes, each inlaid with its own distinct Atcode

We are looking forward to releasing our D-Boxes into the wild to see where they might go, how they will be hacked and also how their interactive decorations might help maintain their histories.


Perhaps Carolan might even get to meet its new siblings? Anyone for a D-Box and acoustic guitar jam?