Digital Optical Theremin; Actor Network Theory Analysis on the Decline of the Theremin's Popularity in the 1920s and the 1930s

Cho, Woohyeong, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

The public often plays an instrument without knowing its technological or historical background. The purpose of this research was to understand a musical instrument named the theremin better. To do so, the technical research of the project was building an optical digital theremin so that the technical aspect of the theremin is learned. Meanwhile, the societal aspect of the theremin had to be found as well to fully understand the theremin, leading both the capstone and STS projects to analyze the theremin, but from different perspectives. The STS research examined why the theremin’s popularity declined after the 1930s and how this situation may be applied to the modern industry. From doing so, the societal aspect of the theremin would be discovered, and the modern industries would benefit by being able to predict whether their products would succeed in the market or not.
The technical part was expected to contribute to the overall project through providing a general understanding on the innerworkings of the theremin. By building a theremin, both the theremin’s subsystems as well as their interactions were to be studied which would then allow the technical aspect of the theremin to be better understood. The team achieved this by building an optical digital theremin. The team learned of the difficulty involved in radio frequency components and approached the theremin with optical proximity sensors and a digital microcontroller unit. Optical proximity sensors were used instead of antennas to measure the distance and the microcontroller processed the information from the sensors to replace the radio frequency components.
After a semester of work on the project, the optical digital theremin was completed. The built theremin detected the two hands’ positions and output a sound at both the frequency and volume that were expected. It was also able to operate at different modes, continuous and discrete, as originally planned. Although the expected result was achieved, some issues that were not essential in the theremin’s performance were not completely solved such as the detection area overlap or the necessity of reloading the program after turning the power off. Even then, however, the optical digital theremin was playable by the user and allowed the theremin to be comprehended from a technical perspective.
The STS part of the project, the research question was, what factors led to the decline of the theremin’s popularity in the 1920s and the 1930s and what is their relevance in the contemporary society? From this research question, the thesis statement was found: the reasons behind the theremin’s popularity drop is still relevant in the modern society and thus the modern industry. To prove this, Actor Network Theory was applied to five actors and actants to analyze how these factors’ interactions affected the technological momentum of the theremin. Both a document from the 1920s as well as relatively recent studies on the theremin or the people associated with the theremin were read to identify these interactions. Then, to prove the effectiveness of the theremin’s actor network in the modern society, modern examples related to the actors and the actants were discovered.
Based on the Actor Network Theory, actors and actants were connected to the societal view actor which then negatively affected the momentum of the theremin and consequently, the theremin’s popularity. This showed that analyzing the societal view’s effect on the theremin’s popularity would provide knowledge regarding other factors’ influence as well. Examination of the cultural, organizational, and social contexts surrounding the theremin showed that all factors from the actor network are relevant in the modern era in influencing a product’s popularity. These two ideas then led to one conclusion. Industries should first learn about the societal view on their products so that they become aware of how the product’s popularity may be affected by other factors.
From the technical work, an optical digital theremin was built and the theremin was better understood as a technical product. Meanwhile, the STS research showed the modern implication of studying the circumstances around the theremin and discovered the social aspect of the theremin. These two researches then allowed the researcher to gain a broad understanding on the theremin as both an invention as well as a product used by people.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Actor Network Theory, Technological Momentum, Theremin, Marketing

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry Powell
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Joseph Chen, Alexander Kim

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