I've been skeptical of the hype surrounding multi-touch displays, but I just saw Jeff Han and Phillip Davidson demo their garage band-like-music player, and it was a little mind-blowing. "Instruments" are basically widgets that generate sound waves not unlike a Pro Tools or Garage Band time line. But here of course an instrument is limited only by the imagination of the programmer. Han and Davidson demoed keyboards, a "guitar," a simple sin wave generator, some shakers and cymbals and the iSaw.
Since their display can handle many hands at once (not just two), instruments can be passed back and forth between musicians. Since they can scale in and out quickly without losing any resolution, there's a very high limit for the number of concurrent instruments. There's one global "clock" which controls the musical timeline, but individual instruments can move at their own pace. In a nice touch, the clock is round (you know, like a clock), instead of the left-to-right baton that has become the standard in sound software
I tried playing their "guitar," which looks a like a yellow football field since it's just a rectangle with some "strings" in it. Of course strings can be added and removed, the shape of the instrument can be stretched and smushed, and the display is quite sensitive to the "touch" of a finger hovering over it. When you consider this, one piece of string instrument software could emulate the behavior of all string instruments known and imagined. I attempted to make a movie of this by holding my camera phone between my teeth while I played, but I was shooting too low.
Electronic performance today looks like a DJ or someone like Thomas Dolby sitting behind turntables, a keyboard, sampler or a powerbook or thinkpad. I've seen almost all of my favorite DJ's live - Cut Chemist, RJD2, The Executioners, Z-trip and so on, but truthfully the most you can experience by watching them is the thrill at being near their technical mastery, and perhaps some smugness that you know enough to appreciate it. Thomas Dolby opened yesterday's sessions with a performance, and although he is of course a master at his craft his performance basically consisted of banging on a bunch of buttons in rhythm. But with this technology, electronic performance is moving back towards true expression with your hands and vocals, and the audience gets to see not just the glow of the back of the powerbook but perhaps a display of the instruments themselves.
This is my first TED, and although I was a little skeptical about the tales of "Ted moments" and flashes of inspiration, I have to sheepishly admit that I think I just experienced my first.