To play the instrument dubbed Aura, the player dons gloves fitted with sensors that report the position and orientation of the hands in a magnetic field.
The magnetic sensors used were original developed for medical applications, motion tracking and manipulation of 3-D graphics, a Cornell release said Tuesday.
Through a computer interface, hand positions are converted to signals in the universal MIDI language for electronic instruments and fed to a synthesizer.
Raising and lowering the hands controls pitch; spreading them apart increases volume. Closing the fingers activates flex sensors and muffles the sound, while twisting the hands adds distortion.
The result looks like a person listening to music and pretending to conduct, but they are instead conjuring music out of thin air, the researchers said.
"We're trying to capture those intuitive gestures and make music," engineering studies senior Ray Li said. "The musician will create a whole song on stage with nothing."