Four decades ago, programmers worked hard to program giant mainframe computers to generate spooky-sounding synthesized music. Now, due to some amazing advances in technology, we can all walk around with a virtual orchestra in our pockets.

Ge Wang, an assistant professor at Stanford University, has been making computer-generated music for over a decade. He’s trained entire orchestras of musicians, playing laptops, mobile phones and iPads, for public performances at Stanford and other venues, using the ChucK audio programming language which he created.

To say that Ge has a love of music – especially socially-created music, would be an understatement. To him, it always felt like music was a universal language that could be leveraged as a tool for widespread connection across humanity. Combined with his interest in ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, these two passions motivated him to start generating music with personal computers, especially mobile platforms like laptops and mobile phones. “Mobile devices have become so powerful, and they’re in everyone’s pockets, it just seemed like a reasonable step,” he says.

To this end, Ge and partner Jeff Scott co-founded SMULE in 2008, to focus on iOS app development. The successful company now numbers over thirty “extremely team-oriented” people, which Ge claims is part of the fun. About six people worked on Ocarina. SMULE is scheduled to expand in 2011 to around forty employees.

SMULE has produced a number of other music-related apps, including Magic Piano and Sonic Lighter. By using iOS devices loaded with these virtual instruments, groups of people can jam together literally at a moment’s notice. People interested in learning how to play original and popular songs can access musical scores at SMULE’s website or through in-app purchases. Users of the new Magic Piano app can connect globally with other players and hear their performances.

SMULE’s iOS app Ocarina (ah-kuh-rina) is modeled after an ancient flute-like instrument of the same name. The user blows into the iPhone’s microphone, located on the bottom of the device, and holds it horizontally to play by covering virtual finger holes on the display.

Some critics have called these apps “sillyware” but Ge believes that there’s no reason that apps for iOS can’t just be fun to use. Ge has a penchant for playing a melody from The Legend of Zelda whenever he shows off the Ocarina app to onlookers.

Can anyone create an iOS app that breaks new ground like SMULE did? Absolutely, says Ge. All you need is the curiosity and desire to actually try something. He strongly recommends leveraging what you already know and are good at, because that will bring a level of uniqueness to your work that nobody else can emulate.

I asked him what his typical working style was at SMULE. He claims he’s more of the “go with the flow” kind of developer, rather then follow any pre-established methodology. “I’m a researcher, so it’s a researcher’s curiosity that leads to wanting to [build apps] in the first place,” he said. “I don’t know the answers to things, I don’t even know the questions. I’m always searching.” He adds that he strives daily to maintain a balance of order and chaos.

So how does he do that? When I asked Ge what he did in his free time, he laughed. “I don’t have much free time,” he said, but when pressed, he admitted to relaxing with a game of Starcraft. “It’s really very elegant and fun to play.” When stuck or faced with a difficult problem, Ge usually goes to work on something else, or eats. He’s especially fond of anything with bacon.

We talked about the cosmic implications of bacon for awhile, and then I asked him where he saw the mobile computing industry going in the future. He said, “I really think we’re going to drop the name ‘mobile’ from ‘mobile computing’ and it’s just going to be more entrenched.” He sees it bypassing the desktop computer and disappearing into a web of pervasive, invisible computing power that can be accessed seamlessly at any time, wherever you are. He quotes Mark Weiser, a visionary leader from the ubicomp field: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

Personally, I have to agree. While I was playing Ocarina and Magic Piano, I quickly forgot that I was manipulating a software program on a miniature computer and thought of it only as my instrument, focusing instead on the music that I was producing. Combine that focus with the experience of playing with others, weaving melodies and rhythms together, and you have a powerful tool for universal harmony indeed.

Posted in: 500K Apps, Blog