Open sound series: Part 2 - OpenChord.org


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In my previous article, I discussed the weird ways in which the open source world operates. Keeping true to that sentiment, this post has a very similar story—all while mixing together two of my favorite things: video games and music.

In March I took a trip with family and friends to Boston in order to take part in the inaugural PAX East convention. While there, I brought along a few Fedora Live CDs and Fedora pens to hand out to event goers, hoping to spur some conversation about open source. While I winded the crowded convention hall stumbling over cables, booths and other people, the last person I expected to hand a disc to was a representative of another open source group. However, as I walked up to what appeared to be a new music game in the vein of Rock Band, that's exactly what occurred. The OpenChord project had a booth setup amongst big players like Nintendo and Rockstar Games, showcasing their wares and discussing the merits of their open source hardware and game implementation. I really was not expecting to find fellow open source promoters (let alone a subject for my next entry in the series) at a convention based around a webcomic about gaming culture. So while I had the opportunity, I made certain to interview the Lead Developer, Alan Chatham, about the OpenChord project.

However, the odd coming together over open source didn't end there. Upon my return to the Opensource.com team we realized that fellow contributor, Colby Hoke, not only saw the project, but got some great video of it in action—as well as another interview with Alan. So rather than both of us doing separate pieces, we decided to merge the two. All credits to Colby Hoke for the excellent multimedia portions of this piece.

And now, the interview:

First, in your own words, give a brief description of your project.
OpenChord.org develops open source controllers allowing you to play Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Frets on Fire using a real guitar. Right now, we're offering a kit to let people build their own guitars, but hope to sell assembled guitars and devices soon.

Why did you choose an open source model? In particular, why open the hardware?
The biggest reason? Why not. My main goal with this project is to make the world a little more awesome - it's hard to imagine, but playing Guitar Hero with a real guitar does make a really big difference to the feel of the gameplay.

I also recognize that there are a lot of other projects that could benefit from the technology, and I want to encourage people to expand it. Since the firmware is USB updatable, anyone can make a sweet project expanding the functionality of the guitar, and all the sudden, everyone's guitar just got better. How cool is that? For instance, one of the side projects I've been working a bit on has been coaxing a USB-MIDI signal out of the guitar, meaning that instead of buying a $200 set of MIDI pickups for your guitar, you can get MIDI signals out of your guitar for a $35 kit, and you can also play Rock Band. But I'm not a guitarist, really, so I'm sure there are other things people would love to do with their guitars, and why would I want to get in their way?

The OpenChord kit and firmware can also be used for other controller projects as well. I've been helping a few people out with making some PS3/USB controllers - I've got a video of playing Street Fighter 4 with my guitar here - and I'm starting to work with some other groups making controllers to help in physical therapy/rehabilitation. It's really rewarding to have something where the collected knowledge can help people out with really great projects.

Besides, it seems like everyone knows that the patent system is broken. For a small business, if you spend the thousands of dollars to get a patent, your only hope is to get bought out by some big company since really pursuing patent infringement claims can literally cost millions of dollars.

And in terms of most of the OpenChord IP, although I figured it out independently, it turns out the technology I'm using for fingering recognition was actually developed in the late 70's/early 80's anyways. In fact, I probably should have started there first, and I'm sure there are some good ideas lying around those expired patents that could improve my guitar. The one nice thing about patents is that 20 year expiry--there's probably a lot of forgotten knowledge in the patent databases that could be a great start to someone else's neat project.

How has the open model helped the project?
There's been a lot of goodwill that I don't think we'd get if we were a well-financed corporate endeavor. The reactions of people to the project have been so positive, and that's been really motivating.

How has the open model hurt the project?
It's hard to say, since until recently, I can't really describe this project as something I've done more than part-time. Still, if it weren't open source, I think I might have pursued this in a more traditional venture capital seeking startup sort of way, and might possibly have a paycheck, or dedicated co-workers. I think if there was a little more pressure/leadership from either investors or some other source, things would have progressed faster on this project.

What things are most needed from the community in order to help your group?
We need some feedback - specifically constructive criticism. I'd love to hear more about what works, what people want to see implemented, what people think of the website, etc. I mean, it's great and really motivating to hear people say, “Wow, I think this is going to revolutionize rhythm games.” But it's way better for me to hear, "that's a cool project, but in order to really make something that's going to be successful, you need to do X, Y, and Z. Why aren't you on blog Q? Have you posted this on forum W?" It would also be really great for people spread the word if they do think it's a cool project, since promotion is something I haven't really any experience with.

Of course, I'd also love to have more people come and join the project, but I think that's true with 98% of open source projects, and at least the software projects don't cost money to get involved with, so it's hardly fair to complain. Well, that and I'd love to see more people buy some kits, but again...

Do you foresee sub-projects or forks? For example, your project is a child of sorts of Frets on Fire. You also mention the possibility of the world’s cheapest MIDI guitar kit, could this become something entirely separate from Openchord?

The possibility of sub-projects is something that's really exciting to me. For instance, while I'm working a little bit on the MIDI thing, I'm not really going to use that myself, so I'm not really going to know much about how it needs improving. I've tried to get the firmware into a nice shape such that the system works (like this):

Read the fretboard -> Interpret the fingerings on the fretboard -> Assign controller buttons based on fingerings -> Send controller data to the system

So any of those steps (are) pretty discrete and replaceable, and I hope my code is clean enough to make modification not too much of a pain.

My hope is that the any hardware forks stay pretty cross-compatible, though, since like I mentioned before, a big thing I hope is that people make cool things and share them with the community, so when you make your guitar better, everyone's guitar gets better, since everyone's hardware is mostly the same. Like the MIDI guitar - It would be awesome if you just do a firmware update to turn your game controller into a MIDI guitar, rather than having to go out and get a new kit for your guitar just to add MIDI functionality to it.

That said, I'm not an engineer by training, so if anyone has improvements for the board, I'd love to hear them!

What do you see happening to the project in a year? Five years?
I mean, it's hard to predict next month, let alone a year or 5. But to start with, five years from now, I don't expect Guitar Hero or Rock Band to be around to nearly the extent it is now. Certainly, the market for controllers has already started to drop, which has a direct implication for OpenChord.org, so I think that OpenChord will be probably winding down as a project, in terms of the guitar game controller space.

Still, I don't think that's a bad thing. In 5 years, I hope I'll have moved on to some other projects, and hopefully by that point, there will be a community of people doing cool stuff with the technology that I can't even begin to imagine. Maybe there will be some space to expand the technology into more dedicated guitar-teaching stuff, or something else will have come up that will mean there's still meaningful things to develop and market. I hope it's not the case that we've started to expand OpenChord into a line of guitar straps, gig bags, and stage makeup. I don't want to be always trying to make quarterly growth - things end. I get that.

A year, that's a lot harder. There are some excellent competing products that are coming out in the next year; some of which look really awesome. OpenChord might wind up competing directly in that space, staying with the kits, working out some sort of licensing/buyout opportunity, or something completely different; it's hard to tell. Right now, I'm looking at FCC licensing, which is going to allow us to move from selling just a kit to selling assembled products, so it's definitely moving in a more consumer-goods oriented direction. Still, it'll be an interesting year, and I hope that it will be the start of people taking what I've started and really making interesting things out of it.

One thing I do know about this coming year, though - OpenChord's going to be at Make Magazine's Maker Faire coming up May 22nd-23rd, and I just bought a violin to adapt into a controller, so that should be a good time - if you're around, come check us out!

 


Thanks to Alan for donating his time to answer these questions. Please feel free to leave comments here if you happened to be at PAX East and got a chance to catch the OpenChord guys in action. Also, if you have any suggestions for Alan and his team or of similar projects, feel free to leave a note!

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2 Comments

pchestek's picture
Open Minded

This is eerily similar to a Harvard Business Review case study, including the company name. Any relationship?

tkepley's picture
Open Minded

I haven't seen it and a cursory search of google didn't turn up much. But it might be. :) I'll see if I can get word from Alan regarding that.