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GDC 2011: Smule's retrospective


Our friend Dr. Ge Wang of Smule kicked off the 2011 Game Developers Conference with a panel providing a nice overview of all of the company's apps so far. The theme of his talk was basically what we spoke with him about at CES earlier this year: as computers grow from mainframe to personal computer, and now to smartphones and mobile devices, the technology is disappearing into the background, and the connections it creates between us are coming to the forefront.

Lately, he said, "technology is so personal, it's pervasive." That's the realm Smule has tried to enter into with its apps, from the early Sonic Lighter up through Magic Fiddle. "Old computing is about what computers can do," said Dr. Wang, "and new computing is about what people can do with them."

During the talk, Dr. Wang went through demos of all of Smule's apps, and while he didn't have any new apps to show yet, he did provide some interesting stories about the apps Smule has released. Wang talked about his work at Stanford, both with the Laptop Orchestra and the Mobile Phone Orchestra, using computer-created music in ways usually more appropriate for traditional instruments, like ambient speakers connected to laptops that are played together to form an orchestra.

In addition to the apps themselves, Dr. Wang also showed off a prototype joystick hooked up to a vocal simulator, which allowed him to play a "voice" by moving it around and pressing various buttons on it. Obviously, that joystick wasn't an iPhone, but that's Smule's approach to its apps: what can the phone do, and how can Smule use those functions to create music?

Wang called Smule's Magic Piano one of the company's "least consistent apps," saying that because it was designed to launch with the iPad, it ended up being a collection of "things that happened to work and didn't suck" rather than a full experience. Wang did a demo with the app's songbook mode, however, and the audience really enjoyed it, showing that even when Smule misses its own mark, there's still interesting work being done.

Magic Fiddle was another example of Smule learning as it developed. The app was originally designed with more strings (and it almost required you to put your chin on the screen to hold it like a violin), but it was scaled back to three in order to keep it simple. Wang said he was happy about the feature called the "voice of fiddle" -- when you first load up the app, a talking tutorial walks you through how to play it. That's a big get for Smule, he said; the more accessible Smule can make its apps, the better.

Wang's talk was fascinating as always, and while it'd be nice to finally hear what Smule is up to next, Wang seems content to just do what he and his company have done since the beginning: experiment, iterate and play around until it's right.

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