The Asus Eee PC with SCDPlayer – A SCD Teacher's Dream Machine

EeePC and Wii remote
The Asus Eee PC 701 4G is one of the new-fangled mini-notebook (or »netbook«) computers that are currently so much in vogue. In a case about 2/3 the size of a »normal« notebook computer and at a weight of less than a kilogram, it packs 512 megabytes or 1 gigabyte of RAM, a 630 MHz CPU and a 4-gigabyte solid state (flash memory) hard disk. Its 7-inch screen has a resolution of 800x480 pixels, and it connects to the Internet via Ethernet and wireless LAN. For expansion, it features three USB connectors and a slot for SD memory cards. On battery, it runs for about three hours before it needs to be recharged. It will boot or shut down in half a minute and can also be »put to sleep« for a near-instantaneous wakeup.

These stats will certainly make computer geeks drool, but why should a Scottish dance teacher bother (unless he is also a computer geek)? In short, because, if you're teaching SCD classes based on recorded music, the Eee PC is the best thing since sliced bread. In the few months that I've owned it, it has already changed the way I teach – and my class loves it. (Note: While this article sat unpublished on my disk, the Eee PC 701 has already become somewhat obsolete – there are models out with bigger screens and more memory. But the main point still stands, and the good thing is that 701s are now becoming available used from people who always must have the newest and best.)

It's not only that more than 100 CD's worth of MP3-encoded SCD music will fit on a €25 8-gig SDHC card the size of a postage stamp, which saves a lot of weight and volume in the kit bag. We use the Eee PC to drive a pair of PC-type active speakers which are quite sufficient for our dance hall. And since the Eee PC is a very robust piece of equipment (almost no moving parts) we have no problems handing it around among the people who share the teaching in our group when I'm not there. I've been using MP3 files on my personal notebook computer in class for a while but of course when I'm away that computer is, too. Hence the Eee PC, because we wanted a cheap(ish) machine that isn't used for anything else important.

Recordings screen
To make the Eee PC a real »dream machine«, I wrote a special application called »SCDPlayer« – available as free software for all takers – to organise that music and make it readily accessible. Need an 8-by-32 jig including the tune »Wi' a Hundred Pipers«? No problem. All the tracks recorded by Keith Smith and Muriel Johnstone? A 4-by-32 bar strathspey with two chords at the beginning? Easy. This program's advantage over the likes of iTunes is that it knows more about SCD music than the others, by virtue of special »tags« embedded in the MP3 files based on the popular DanceData database by Alan Paterson of Berne. (SCDPlayer comes with a tool that you can run on your desktop PC to »rip and tag« music CDs to prepare them for SCDPlayer – and if you already have your music as MP3 files, it will add the special tags for you, based on information retrieved from the Web.) Also, compared to dedicated MP3 players like the iPod, the Eee PC's higher-resolution screen makes it a lot easier to find things.

Playback screen
SCDPlayer also supports a special playback mode for teaching. This not only includes a very large time display that is easy to make out from metres away (even on a smallish screen like that of the Eee PC), but also a »progress bar« which approximately marks the turns of the dance from the tag info, so it is easy to see that we're now half-way through the fifth repetition of a dance, even for recordings where the sequence of tunes is not very familiar. SCDPlayer can turn the playback speed up or down (although, right now, not while keeping the pitch constant) to ease step practice or help with recordings that are a mite too slow or quick.

A teacher's work is made even easier using one of the several remote-control options that SCDPlayer supports. My best experience is with a remote controller for the Nintendo Wii games console, which is available separately for about €35 and which communicates with the Eee PC via Bluetooth radio, so you don't have to »aim« the way you would with a TV-style remote control. In my experiments the Wii controller, together with a €10 USB-based Bluetooth dongle for the Eee PC (which doesn't support Bluetooth out of the box), appears to cover pretty much all of the largish school gymnasium that my group uses, so there does not seem to be a practical range restriction. The Wii remote's buttons are set up such that it is easy to start, stop, and pause playback, to change speed (and return to normal at the press of a button) and to rewind in steps of 2 seconds. This makes it convenient to teach a dance by recalling eight-bar phrases from the Eee PC – simply run the music, pause at the end of the phrase, and, from anywhere in the room, two presses on the rewind-by-2 button give you enough of a head-start to »ready, and« over the music for the next eight bars. It's the next best thing to a class musician, and my dancer seem to like it a lot because it means less counting out loud and more music.

SCDPlayer is still actively being improved and bugs are being ironed out. However, it is absolutely usable right now (if I say so myself). If you're interested in SCDPlayer but don't have an Eee PC, the program will also run on other Linux-based computers (»netbooks« and normal PCs – my »big« computer is a Samsung X20 running Debian GNU/Linux pre-5.0), and I'd be happy to try to help. Contact me at anselm@anselms.net – also if you have suggestions or ideas on how to make the program even more useful.

How to find out more:

You see things, and you say »Why?« But I dream things that never were, and say »Why not?«
– George Bernard Shaw