Current Issue

Nov. 4, 2009

Vol. 110, No. 4

Alumni Scene

Making your phone a flute, and more

Alumni, student ‘apps’ are tools for medicine, transportation, music — even baseball

By Brett Tomlinson
Published in the November 4, 2009, issue


Ge Wang *08, below, created Ocarina, which can turn the iPhone into a flutelike instrument. Above, he demonstrates how it is played.
Photos courtesy Ge Wang *08
Ge Wang *08, below, created Ocarina, which can turn the iPhone into a flutelike instrument. Above, he demonstrates how it is played.

Want to hear “Stairway to Heaven” on an iPhone? You can take the easy route — find the track in your music library and press Play.  

Or you could turn your phone into a musical instrument and try playing the song by yourself.  

The latter option is made possible by Ge Wang *08, a computer scientist with a deep interest in music. Wang and his colleagues created Ocarina, an application for the iPhone and iPod Touch that lets users blow into the device’s microphone to make a sound, manipulate virtual finger holes on the touch-screen to change pitch, and tilt the phone forward to add vibrato. You even can listen to other Ocarina players around the world.

Wang has a history of creating new and innovative forms of music. His ChucK audio programming language was a driving force behind the Prince­ton Laptop Orchestra, and he started a sister ensemble at Stanford, where he is an assistant professor. But Ocarina is his greatest success: It was downloaded more than 1 million times (at $0.99 each) in its first 10 months on the ­market.

“If you were to tell me a year ago that a million people were going to be using something I designed and making music by blowing into their iPhones, I would have been fairly skeptical,” Wang says.  

Unexpected success has been a common theme for a small group of Princeton alumni and students who have created “apps” for Apple’s mobile phone and handheld computer. Andy Huibers ’92 and David Lieb ’03 came up with Bump, which enables people to swap contact information by bumping their phones together. The iPhone contains a device that detects acceleration and tilt, so it “feels” the bumping motion, Lieb explains. The Bump application then sends information to a server and matches phones that felt the same bump at the same place and time.

Huibers and Lieb released the app for free, to see if people would use it. Tech experts gave favorable reviews, and Bump received a publicity boost in April when it was the one-billionth download from the App Store. By mid-October, more than 4.8 million users had downloaded the application.  

Success in the tech world has led to interesting encounters in the real world. When Lieb went to a San Francisco Giants game with one of Bump’s investors, he struck up a conversation with the man next to him and swapped information. Afterward, he says, “I realized it was [rapper] MC Hammer that I just bumped with.”

Lieb and Huibers aim to make Bump a ubiquitous technology for connecting two phones in person. Many app developers have ­smaller niches in mind.  

Matt Connor ’11, who once worked at an Apple Store, thought that the iPhone could help diabetics manage their health if it were set up to record information such as blood glucose readings, carbohydrate intake, and insulin injections. So Connor and his brother Michael studied the Apple programming platform and created an application called Islet (named for the pancreatic cells that produce insulin).

The first release was relatively basic, Connor says, but he believed that the idea had room to grow. He applied for a grant from the nonprofit Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT), drafting his proposal last spring in the little free time he had between engineering courses and baseball practices. CIMIT awarded $100,000 to help him expand the iPhone app and a Web-based ­companion.  

So far, Islet has relatively few users — about 4,000 — but they are a communicative group. They e-mail notes of thanks and suggestions for new features. Connor enjoys getting both. “It’s rewarding to hear that you’re helping,” he says.
Bump creators David Lieb ’03, left, and Andy Huibers ’92.
Courtesy Bump Technologies
Bump creators David Lieb ’03, left, and Andy Huibers ’92.

More applications with Princeton ties

Classics Ph.D. candidate Harry Schmidt created LEXIPHANES and LEXIDIUM, dictionaries of Greek and Latin, respectively. They are helpful tools for classical philologists like Schmidt, who need to have reference volumes close at hand.

ALK Technologies, a company started by Alain Kornhauser *71, a Princeton professor of operations research and financial engineering, provides turn-by-turn directions with its satellite navigation app, COPILOT LIVE.

John Buchanan ’87 and his brother Andy, authors of a series of guidebooks for famous baseball parks, released WISE GUIDE WRIGLEY FIELD, an app that gives fans insider tips about the stadium and includes an interactive trivia quiz.  

In addition to Ocarina, Ge Wang *08 and his colleagues developed LEAF TROM­BONE WORLD STAGE, an iPhone musical instrument that includes an instructional ­element and a chance to rate the performances of other users. Graduate student Rebecca Fiebrink has worked with Wang’s company, Smule, on an app called I AM T-PAIN, a voice synthesizer that enables users to sound like the popular hip-hop star.  

The ITRANS series of apps, which provide offline directions and public transit maps for a handful of U.S. cities, began as a class project for a team of Princeton computer science students.

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CURRENT ISSUE: Nov. 4, 2009
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Video: Do the Ocarina
Ge Wang *08 and friends, creators of the Ocarina application for the iPhone, play "Stairway to Heaven."

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