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Interview: Ge Wang, Creator of Ocarina and Leaf Trombone

This article was first published to the iPhone Games Network. To see my original piece, click here.

Interview with Ge Wang from Smule thumbnail

I sit down with Ge Wang Co-founder, CTO, and Chief Creative Officer of Smule, to chat about Ocarina and his latest music game, Leaf Trombone.

1. Background

How did you get into making applications like Ocarina and Leaf Trombone?

As an Assistant Professor at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), I come from the field of computer music research, which, for me, combines three passions: music, computer science, and the joy of building things. It’s my mission as a researcher to change the way people think, do, and interact, through sound, technology, and music. Along this line, Ocarina and Leaf Trombone were designed to provide new creative, social experiences that perhaps weren’t possible until now.

Before you started making iPhone apps, you were primarily known for SLOrk. Can you tell me a little about it and how that project has influenced your app writing?

The Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) is a large-scale ensemble of laptops, human players, and special hemispherical speaker arrays (made out of IKEA salad bowls, car speakers, and compact amplifiers). Like its older East Coast sibling PLOrk (Princeton Laptop Orchestra), SLOrk aims to fuse traditional music making (the orchestra) with the vast potential of computer technology. It’s both a performing ensemble and a classroom for exploring this new musical medium. (One can find out more about SLOrk at:

Working with the laptop orchestra has greatly informed the design of iPhone apps for me. Crafting a musical interface for the iPhone (e.g., Ocarina and Leaf Trombone) is similar to creating an instrument from scratch for the laptop, it’s just that the design parameters are different. The challenge is to design around the capabilities (and limitations) and to make the most of it all.

Do you think Leaf Trombone can be used to similar effect as SLOrk?

Certainly. If one puts his/her creativity to use, I believe you can make music with just about anything.

Have you tried incorporating it (or the iPod/iPhone in general) into any SLOrk performances?

The Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra (MoPhO) is working on it, using all iPhones, iPod Touches, and wearable speakers!

2. Game

Do you consider Leaf Trombone a game or a music app?

It was designed to be both a game and a musical instrument. The analogy I draw is that if Guitar Hero and Rock Band are games based on real musical instruments (they aren’t instruments, per se, but brings the feeling of playing an instrument to the player), Leaf Trombone: World Stage is perhaps the opposite. It’s a musical instrument that has a strong gaming element. By the way, I don’t mean to imply that one is better than the other – I love playing both Rock Band and Leaf Trombone!

What are some of the difficulties you encountered when developing Leaf Trombone?

Leaf Trombone: World Stage is Smule’s most sophisticated app to-date, in terms of scale, technical challenge, and sheer number of features that allows players to take on the roles of performer, judge, and even composer.

The World Stage aspect was particular challenging, because to our knowledge, it’s the first social interaction of its kind — to allow anyone to judge the performances of their fellow Leaf Trombonists, and in real-time with other judges around the world.

How does the music box add to the experience?

The Leaf Trombone’s music box was designed to accompany the trombonist, to provide a richer musical experience, both harmonically and rhythmically.

Leaf Trombone’s appeal lies in its MMO and social features, but users can’t currently play as a group. Are there plans to change that?

Great question. I don’t want to give anything away just yet, except to say that it’s our current mission at Smule to dive even more deeply on the social and MMO aspects of music and what we call “interactive sonic media”.

Leaf Trombone has made it into the top 10 list in several countries. Can you give me an estimate of how many copies have been sold so far?

I can’t yet give figures on this, but I can say that in the first month of release, Leaf Trombone community have performed for more than 300,000 judging sessions, and composed more than 4000 new tracks for the Leaf Trombone!

Has the high number of users had an impact on the multiplayer component?

Totally. Like other MMO games, Leaf Trombone: World Stage’s experience depends on critical mass of players, judges, and composers. We have been fortunate to have all three.

3. Future

What will you make next for the platform?

We at Smule and CCRMA are committed to deeply explore new ways to create, listen to, and interact with music for everyone, enabled by the potential of new technologies like the iPhone. And through music, we hope to bring the world a bit closer together.

Stay tuned!


June 2, 2009 - Posted by | Gaming, Interview, iPhone/iPod Touch | , , , , , , , , ,

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