How the Media Lab Gave Birth to Guitar Hero and Hyperviolins

via Ars Technica

Oct. 25, 2010


At the MIT Media Lab's recent 25th anniversary celebration, the program included a number of alumni of the graduate program speaking about their time there. One of the most compelling stories was that of Eran Egozy, who helped form Harmonix, the company that brought us Guitar Hero. Egozy traced how a set of projects gradually built both the desire and technology needed to give everyone the chance to think they're a musician.

Egozy came to MIT with an interest in music, since he is a classically trained clarinet player (The man who introduced him joked, "if there were no business concerns, Eran would actually have created Clarinet Hero.")  But the first project he recalled involved the piano, specifically the player piano, a machine that played a regular upright piano using notes encoded as gaps in a roll of paper.

Egozy had apparently come across a series of scrolls that dated from the 1920s, but had nothing to play them on, a problem he solved in true Media Lab style. To feed the scrolls, he built a mechanism out of LEGO that fed them under a video camera. The video feed went to a NeXT box, which digitized it, read it, and converted it to MIDI. The MIDI was then sent over the network to a MIDI piano that resided in the basement.

From there, he moved on to a project called the hyperviolin, the second in a series that started with a hypercello played by YoYo Ma. The hyperinstruments contain sensors that captured the instrument's motion and the player's gestures. These are then digitized and incorporated into the musical performance. For the hyperviolin, played by Ani Kavafian, this required a system that, in Egozy's words, was "freakin' complicated." Two computers were needed, one doing pitch detection in real time, and another controlling the output. The experience got Egozy hooked, since he and his fellow students "weren't holed up in a lab working on something nobody saw."

But his next project involved repurposing the sensors, which could detect changes in motion in their vicinity.

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