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Fidular: Modular Fiddle
Bangkok, Thailand
December 2015
Role: Mechanical Engineer and Design
Fidular is a cross-cultural, modular system designed for traditional bowed fiddles. With unprecedented cross-compatibility, users can instantly dissemble and interchange chamber, strings and shafts between various fiddles from across Asia and the Middle East. Whereas traditional fiddles are permanently bonded together, Fidular features a re-designed frame, enabling a musician to easily remove and swap the mellow coconut of a Thai Saw-U for the sharper lizard skin chamber of a Vietnamese Danho, or even a 3D printed chamber, all while retaining the delicate silk strings of the Korean Haegum and critical acoustic phenomena. Aspects such as timbre can be customized by mixing and matching traditional chambers or by creating new designs through digital fabrication.

The serendipitous inspiration behind Fidular came from my apprenticeship with luthiers in Northern Thailand. As I practiced chopping coconuts and carving wood on a DIY carpenter's lathe, I thought about how scientific tools and fabrication methods have continuously evolved Western musical instruments in incredible ways: from 3D printed flutes, carbon fiber violins to hybrid acoustic-digital guitars. On the other hand, the design and fabrication of traditional musical instruments, like the Thai Sloh I was making, have remained unchanged for centuries. Lack of research, coupled with declining interest in traditional music, has left traditional instruments like the Iranian Kamancheh, let alone the relative unheard-of Thai Saw-U in a state of innovation "stasis". Inspired by recent advances in digitally fabricated instruments, I wanted to re-imagine traditional instruments with these new technologies and audiences from my home country, Thailand, and across Asia.

Fidular embraces the notion of cultural plurality as a design principle. While the Chinese Erhu, a traditional two string instrument from China, is now a familiar instrument on a global scale, it is just one type of fiddle belonging to a larger family of bowed fiddles found across Asia to the Middle East. The distinct timbre of a fiddle is determined by the culture's unique combination of materials and geometries, the Erhu for example is made from snakeskin stretched across a hexagonal chamber. However, because traditional fiddles are permanently bonded together, there is no opportunity for the end-user to modify, experiment or improve the instrument once the luthier has finished his craft, let alone swap parts with another fiddle.

Through my first-hand experience building these instruments, I identified and re-designed components common across all fiddles to enable both modularity and cross-compatibility between cultures. The design, engineering and fabrication process was informed by interviews with fiddle makers from different countries, professional musicians, professors, regular folk and concert goers, as well as the creator's own background in Applied Physics (B.S) and traditional Thai music.

Fidular manifests my vision of culture-aware technology: the convergence of future and traditional technologies, engineered for cross-cultural fluidity. It unifies the plethora of fiddles from across Asia and the Middle East into one integrated cross-cultural system. Musicians can use different combinations of chambers and strings to modify the fiddle's timbre and acoustic "personality" according to or beyond its country of origin.

The process becomes much like changing lenses on a DSLR camera. A photographer owns a collection of lenses as each one imparts a unique visual character and perspective to the image. A fiddle player with cross-cultural chambers can choose the one most appropriate for a particular style. The mellow tone of the Thai Saw-U chamber is particularly apt for many expressivo passages while the higher tone of a Chinese Banhu may be more suitable for vivace passages. I imagine players visiting different luthiers, collecting chambers and developing particular bonds with a chamber's acoustic qualities. With modern communication and digital fabrication, I also see musicians designing, sharing and downloading personalized chamber designs across FabLabs.

My vision of culture-aware technology extends beyond musical craftsmanship and 3D printing. Imagine Thai silk and Indonesian Batik woven with conductive thread and activated with capacitive sensing, or Cambodian silver bracelets embedded with wearable computation. My two pending patents and published papers on Fidular demonstrate how applying cutting-edge technologies in new cultural contexts, can lead to novel and surprising results that can advance technology and design. I am currently exploring this vision in the domain of Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning, applied to Southeast Asian and East Asian culture. Technology can be made better for all users; from all cultures.