Touch screens have spoiled most of us when it comes to interacting with our devices — after all, isn’t touching an icon simpler and quicker than having to tap it with a stylus? But lost in all this is the desire that preceded all this — what I call “Abracadabra”, as in waving your hand to enact a function with nothing but air between you and the device. And if that function is musical expression, then IK Multimedia’s iRing is the first wave of bringing “Abracadabra” to those with iPhones and/or iPads.
Two iRings, both made of plastic, are included and each is designed similar to the other in that they’ve a flat area connected to a rod that terminates in a smaller flat area. Unlike what the name implies, you don’t “wear” iRings, you place them between the fingers of the hand so that one of the flat areas face out. Since one flat area has a set of 3 horizontal dots, with the other having a circular series of dots, that makes two choices. The iRing has no moving parts or battery source, relying on the fact that iPhones/iPads have cameras.
The camera sees and “tracks” the pattern of movement that the dots on the iRing makes, translating that into specific commands through software running (i.e., an app). Of course some physical restrictions applied, for example you can’t be 10 feet away and expect it to work. Or to work in the dark — the iCamera needs enough light to sufficiently see the iRing pattern passing in front of it. Additionally, the clothing of the person, which becomes the “background” behind the iRing, needs to be plain and bereft of contrast that could cause camera difficulties — an example here would be a shirt with criss0crossing lines or a T-shirt that had a design on the front that had multiple images rather than large areas of solid colors. I found that wearing a blue T that only had “Capcom” in the corner worked fine every time I used the iRing.
So in use the gestures include such things as rotation (left or right), showing/hiding the iRing, “Punching” (moving forward/back) and Exiting (moving off the iDevice horizontally left or right or vertically up or down). You definitely need to spend a bit of time getting “muscle memory” working so that you don’t have to stop and think as to what the iRing is capable of doing.
Two programs are provided free (via the App Store) for use with the iRing. The first is designed for fun — being iRing Music Maker and which lets you make dance grooves and audio effects. With the program selected on my iPhone 5, I moved my left hand (holding the “circular ” iRing forward towards the screen) while doing a rotation movement with the iRing on my right. For a while I just played around and watched what happened as my hands moved. It’s easier than it sounds, but still there’s a certain amount of practice needed in order to get the coordination between using the two together — think of it as having to do the classic “pat your head while rubbing your stomach.” But the freedom of just waving one’s hands around to cause effects is compelling and very powerful. And it’s fun too.
But I did come to the realization that this would work a lot better on the larger screen of the iPod, partly from my being able to see what’s on the screen easier, as well as having a finer control due to the greater amount of “real estate” that an iPad’s screen provides. I did find that gross controls are more extreme on the smaller iPhone screen. Also, while possible to use the iRing with the iPhone/iPad lying flat, it is more effective visually as well as functionally to have it on a stand. Especially since the effective distance is around 2 feet or so (using the back camera negates having any visual feedback, but would make for a greater distance due to it being a superior camera). That’s no issue for iPad owners, since most will have at least one stand, but the iPhone is less linked to this. However getting a stand for the phone isn’t a big deal — for example, IK Multimedia’s iRig Cast microphone for an iPhone comes with a stand. Stands can also be found for a few dollars on eBay and at other locations.
The other free app, iRing FX/Controller, is more of a processing controller — it can work with other apps, issue MIDI commands, process audio effects and integrate with studio hardware. Gestures can be established to enact control depending on placement of the iRing as well as physical movement. Again, it’s a lot easier to do than it sounds, but there’s no denying that some learning curve is needed for what is a professional product, not a “tap and play” music toy. FX/Controller is all about having a desire to create, not just mess around. Which is probably why in-app purchases for effects here don’t seem so annoying.
Bottom line: DJ’ing and music making/control has its fans as well as its detractors. But what the iRing does can’t be lauded enough — it uses a simple mechanism with no moving parts other than your hands to enact commands. Those looking for a more free-form way to express themselves should spend the $24.99 and check it out
Two iRings can be used simultaneously, MIDI messages can be routed from mobile device to Mac computer
Older generation iPhones/iPads not as responsive
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.