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Can Tech Learn to Rock?

September 1, 2000

Imagine if Microsoft crossed the Smithsonian Institution with the Hard Rock Cafe, then injected some genetic material from Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Sony’s multimedia Metreon entertainment center in San Francisco. The result might look something like the heavily hyped Experience Music Project (EMP), which opened early this summer at the foot of Seattle’s famed Space Needle. Bankrolled to the tune of $250 million by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the EMP began as an homage to Seattle native Jimi Hendrix. It has evolved into something much more-and somehow a bit less.

Housed in a spectacular Frank Gehry-designed building resembling a pile of giant melted gumdrops, the EMP puts a unique high-tech spin on American popular music. The facility-bisected by a monorail left over from a World’s Fair-combines a traditional museum, high-tech entertainment proving ground and a new-age shopping mall and melds them into a kind of theme park for boomers. In addition to the Hendrix shrine and other traditional museum-style collections of rock and roll memorabilia, it boasts a number of high-tech innovations. A motion-simulator ride, for example, seems to dive through a trumpet and drop you into high-energy funk concerts by James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic.

The EMP seems even prouder of its interactive Sound Lab, where visitors can try their hand at creating their own music-with or without electronic assistance. You can step up to a specially modified electric guitar, for example, and follow the lights built into the frets to play along with The Kingsmen on “Louie, Louie” or Nirvana on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If you miss the notes, the computer-controlled instrument offers more practice. Electronic drums use velocity sensors to control the size of the graphics on a display. A concert simulator synchs MIDI samples to a lyric generator to make you the star.

EMP’s other major innovation is its ingenious Museum Exhibit Guide (MEG)-sort of a menage a trois involving a Sony Discman, a Palm Pilot and a TV remote control. One of these gizmos, which were custom-designed by Allen’s firm Vulcan Northwest and rumored to cost $2,000 each, gets strapped to every EMP visitor right after they fork over the museum’s $20 admission fee. You point the infrared remote unit at specially marked exhibits and it downloads relevant text and audio for immediate playback, bookmarking your selections for later retrieval in the EMP’s computer lab or Web site ( Choice bits range from blues stylings that led to the birth of rock and roll to singer David Johansen of the New York Dolls explaining why his group was so influential, even though nobody liked them much during their 1970s heyday.

If the technology is unquestionably cutting edge, sometimes it can seem more important than its subject. The concert simulator, for example, seems to run out of ideas on where to go once you actually reach the show; it energetically but awkwardly slings visitors around from soloist to soloist. MEG is a bit clumsy to use, and wearing the headphones isolates each visitor in a little cocoon of privacy.

That’s the trouble with trying to mold technology into the service of something as visceral as rock and roll. No matter how slick its innovations, the EMP won’t be as exciting as its subject until they figure out how to make the technology rock as hard as the music. Heck, it might help if they just turned up the volume a little.

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