Initially developed for kids with disabilities, Edinburgh-based Skoogmusic has spent the last four years delivering its colorful and tactile Skoog digital music-making instrument to almost 2,000 schools around the world. Now the company is eyeing the consumer space with the development of version 2.0, which benefits from a much-reduced cost of entry, new mobile companion apps, wireless capabilities and battery-powered portability.
Though the Skoog 2.0 is described as a digital musical instrument and controller, it's more of a trigger or controller for music creation software. The creators claim that Skoogists, as users are called, will be able to pick up and make music in less than a minute, even if they've never played an instrument before.
Like the original version, it's a soft, squeezable, wipe-clean foam cube with spots on five of its faces. But the team has now completely redesigned the sensor technology, which now has a higher polling rate (how often the device reports to the computer/tablet its connected to), and re-engineered Bluetooth firmware for minimum latency for improved response.
"Patent-pending technology and a range of music-making apps and software, make it an 'out-of-the box' joy to play, allowing for a huge range of abilities, creative talents, and musical preferences," company co-founder Dr Ben Schögler told us. "It's also wireless, iOS-compatible and highly responsive, so ideal for anyone interested in being creative with sound. The possibilities for creating music from one little box are endless, and fun. Plus, it's an awesome accessory for the iPad."
Users can tap the color-coded convex spots to activate preset sounds in the Skoogmusic or Mogo iOS/Android apps or twist, shake and squeeze the cube's body to dance to a different tune. Onboard Hall Effect sensors developed in-house detect pressure across the whole surface of the Skoog (apart from its ABS plastic base) and this is translated by the software into sounds.
"Inside Skoog 2.0 is a patent-pending system of sensors that detect the movement of a number of magnets embedded within the foam," revealed co-founder Dr David Skulina. "When you squish the foam, the magnets move relative to their rest positions (and relative to each other) and by looking at how they move, our software can figure out how much and from what direction, the foam is being compressed. It can also figure out if it is being squished from more that one side at once, and if the whole body of foam is being twisted, etc. You can play Skoog with either conductive and non conductive objects. It really doesn't mind.
"Once the data is all cleaned up we are basically streaming a pair of displacement vectors, and a 'twist' parameter that we can plumb into whatever we want either directly or via derivatives and/or peak detection into our physical models and synth sound modules. We typically map the magnitude to something equivalent to MIDI velocity, and the displacement angle to MIDI note and/or pitch bend."
The Mogo virtual analog synth app features assignable filters, envelopes, stereo multi-effects, a multi-stage arpeggiator, built-in looper and real-time effects control. "Sonically speaking, the Mogo synth engine is second to none, using a classic 24 dB ladder filter for full-on bass and crisp mids and highs," said Skulina. "What makes Skoog and Mogo so special together is that they can be used to perform musical gestures that might require the musician to have a third hand when using standard MIDI controllers."
The main sound engine for the Skoog 2.0 is the Skoogmusic software, where a range of instrument sounds (including strings, percussions, woodwind and brass) have been physically-modeled for more realism, and the system is able to react dynamically to a player's expressive gestures.
In addition to iOS and Android support (it should be noted that the apps are not compatible with the iPhone), separate full versions for Windows/Mac computers will be available. The full version of the software will cater for recording of compositions and will even accommodate two Skoogs being connected at the same time.
Sensitivity can be adjusted and up to five simultaneous notes can be sounded, with pitch bending available for everything inbetween. The Skoog 2.0 is tuned to A4 (440 Hz) but this can be adjusted to match an acoustic instrument, and different locations on the surfaces can be assigned different notes.
The Skoog 2.0 connects to a mobile device or computer running the proprietary digital music creation software via Bluetooth 4.0 for a wireless range of about 30 ft (10 m) or via USB 2.0 (HID), but can also be used as a multitouch controller for third party software suites like Ableton Live, Logic and GarageBand.
The device itself is not MIDI compliant though, but can still be used with MIDI software and hardware.
"One common misconception is that Skoog is a MIDI device: it isn't," confirmed Skulina. "We do not send MIDI directly from the device (although we may do this in a future version). Instead, you can turn MIDI mode on/off from within our Skoogmusic software for Mac/Windows/iOS/Android – this converts data from the sensors into MIDI noteon/noteoff, modulation, pitch bend, and control channel output messages for those who want to use Skoog 2.0 to control things like GarageBand and Ableton. Because Skoog 2.0 can communicate with our mac/windows software via Bluetooth or USB, it can be used in MIDI mode with either. On iOS, communication is by Bluetooth only, so MIDI is Bluetooth only too. On iOS other apps like GarageBand can pick up the MIDI signals from our software (so you can use it in jam mode, for example)."
The Skoog 2.0 doesn't include its own speakers, the sound is output through the audio throwers or headphone jack of whatever device it's paired/connected to. Preliminary measurements of hardware latency from the Skoog 2.0 prototype for communication over USB and Bluetooth are reported at less than one millisecond for the former and around four milliseconds for the latter. "We do not have an official latency figure for the time between touch and loudspeaker output yet, but we're confident that we are starting from a pretty decent hardware baseline," Skulina revealed.
When cabled up to a computer or laptop, the device gets the power it needs over USB, but has its own rechargeable battery for wireless freedom and portability. The 1,500 mAh Li-Pol battery is reported good for a good 10 hours of play between charges.
The Skoogmusic team is currently getting the Skoog 2.0 ready to rock the digital music world, and has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help pay for tooling, manufacturing and assembly of the new devices. Where the original wired-only instrument, which was launched in 2010, doesn't leave much change from £400 (over US$600), early adopters can sign up for one of the first new Skoogs off the production line with a pledge of £125, which includes iOS or Android versions of the Skoogmusic and Mogo apps.
Shipping to the UK, EU and US is included in the pledge amount, and delivery is expected to start in April 2015, if all goes to plan. Retail sales are also penciled in for April at a suggested retail price of £179.99.
The company has also just introduced a new Developers pledge level. For £135, app scientists can get early access to the system and its API repository. You can see the team introducing the Skoog 2.0 in the video below.
"The original Skoog will remain available for so long as demand remains," Skulina told Gizmag. "Aside from a new hard wearing rubber skin, the materials used in the upper foam parts of the new and original Skoogs are very similar, but the new base is made of a hard ABS plastic rather than the dense foam material used in the original. Both are very strong and durable, but the foam material is always going to be more forgiving if you drop it on your toe or accidentally bump it on somebody's head, so some SEN schools, for example, may still prefer the old version. For certain groups the high contrast, more colorful appearance of Skoog 1 may also be preferable."