Digital Tap Shoe Project Goals

Digital Tap Shoe Project Goals

Digital Tap Shoes

Midi Controller Tap Shoes designed specifically for tap dancers.


Tap dancing is a rhythmic and artistic augmentation to music through dance. 

This project is to expand and redefine the capabilities of Tap Dance for creating and supplementing music.

What is it?

A system to create multi-instrument looped drum solos using the standard tap dancing skill set. 

This post is a work in progress. It will change and update frequently as I continue to work on this project. :)

Project Goals

Intended Outcomes:

  • A midi controller that uses existing tap dance skills to trigger percussive beats in tight relation to the sounds of actual tap shoes (beat, attack, duration, and timbre)
  • A midi looper that allows the dancer to lay down drum beats (specifically Bass, Tom, Snare, High Hat) one instrument at a time to build a complex rhythm, and/or play on top of this rhythm

What the shoes SHOULD do:

  • Have little to no latency
  • Have clear, concise rhythms
  • Mimic the nuances of metal taps 
  • Should go up in pitch slightly when leaning on the edges of the shoe
  • Should differentiate between a heel drop and heel dig
  • Should be silenced when standing still
  • Feel like tap shoes - the user should have a tactile understanding of where the sensor/tap is
  • Look awesome - combo of street fashion, dance, and futuristic musician - possibly with lights (but not tacky lights - no rainbows!!!!)

What the shoes SHOULD NOT do:

  • The shoes should not make audible sounds from the slapping of the shoe, rather the goal should be to replace the tapping sound entirely with digital sound
  • The shoes should not cause the user to feel that they need to press their feet into the ground to get the expected sound


System Diagram

System Overview:

Tap Shoes:

  • Groups of sensors in toe, ball and heel

Controller Glove: 

  • Switches for controlling playback and looping
  • Potentially sense for clapping

Tap Sensors:

  •  Matrix of pressure sensors inside tap shaped enclosure
  • The matrix will be separated into toe, ball and heel sensors
  • Goal is to set off one or more sensors to understand both velocity and pressure

Controller Glove:

Conductive nylon switches control instrument 

Potentially also: 

  • Another switch to add a clap (next pitch up from toe tap)
  • Vibe motor to feel a metronome or provide haptic feedback for settings

Technology Thoughts:

  • Microcontroller with Bluetooth LE in each shoe and one in the glove
  • All connect via Bluetooth LE to iPhone
  • Midi App (TBD)
  • Roli Play
  • FM Essential (Yamaha)
  • Other
  • Phone connected to Speaker

More Thoughts:

The system will:

  • Be wireless and connect to phone midi apps for maximum connectivity to portable speaker systems
  • Be controlled by a glove to change instrument
  • Include a midi looping system for multi instrument play
  • Reduce the amount of audible noise from the shoes themselves so physical sounds don’t distract from the digital instrument
  • Be embedded inside familiar tap shapes so dancers do not have to re-train their muscle memory

Placement of taps - NOT IN THE SHOE!

Putting the sensors inside the shoe would be strapping a drummers drumsticks to their wrists. There is a mechanical advantage to placing the taps on the outside of the shoe - it literally extends the length of the lever of the foot and allows for a "slap" to occur with the floor. These micro-motions are key to the dancer and without them the technique is compromised. 

At ITP, my first version of this project used FSResistors inside the shoe. This was fun to play with but required me to completely change the way my foot moved to make the sound. The goal of this version is to create parody to the actual shoe and technique that the dancer already possesses. 

Why not accelerometers?

Tap shoes are a tool. They are meant to extend the body and create more possibilities than the body could itself. The tactile and improvisational experience is important and developing muscle memory for a physical sensor just feels right to me. I could imagine a case where the accelerometer was finely calibrated and could potentially be useful - but that sounds more like a "years of data manipulation" project and I just want to make this and dance. :)

What about machine learning?

I don't know that much about machine learning. And I'm skeptical that it could help here, but I'm also hoping to be proven wrong. 

From what I understand, I believe it would be a great use of machine learning to make a glove that lets you type in the air as a computer keyboard, but not one that lets you wiggle your fingers as if you were playing a flute, because the joy of the experience is with the whole body’s relationship to the flute, but the experience for a keyboard is to put thoughts in your mind into the computer without artistic expression. What would the computer do if you wanted to jazz it up a bit? Wouldn't you be locked into the knowledge of the machine? ...?

That being said, I wonder if machine learning may be an interesting tool to help create the correct interface for the shoes. For example, if I could do the same step many times and identify the reason that I'm not getting the desired result every time. More thoughts on that are sure to come. 


Interaction Flow Charts

The simplest version of the project is just a pair of shoes that makes midi sounds when you dance on the taps. 

Adding a looper will add a lot of complexity and require designing a controller glove to interact with many commands. It should be able to select the instrument and also start and stop the recording. 

More interaction ideas:

  • Play a track of instrumental 4 chord songs, add the rhythm/drums to specify the song, sing along
  • Turn off one shoe for additional syncopation
  • What happens when you want to do this with a group of dancers? Can each dancer be a software instrument? How would it all be connected? Who would control it?


Future Dreams of Even Better Systems

Ideas for what could be:

  • The chip and battery are embedded inside one of the taps with a ribbon cable between the two so they can be bought and added to any standard tap shoe
  • Heels have inductive chargers for internal battery and they sit on the cutest glowing Qi charger ever. 
  • Better yet, shoes are powered by dancing on piezo generators 
  • Educational component that rates you on your rhythm accuracy doing specific steps - like Guitar Hero

comment (1)

  • avatar

    on June 15, 2024 13:44

    Any updates?

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