Ge Wang is sitting in his Stanford University office, a couple of small speakers strapped to his hands, performing "Music of the Night," from "Phantom of the Opera."
He's not playing a flute or a violin: He's blowing gently into his iPhone, playing with a pre-release version of Ocarina 2, the new version of one of the most successful iPhone (and Android) apps of all time.
Wang is the co-founder and chief creative officer of Smule, Ocarina's developer, and also an assistant professor at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. With the imminent release of Ocarina 2 for iOS, Magic Piano for Android, and an all-new app, he's more than busy. And that's not counting his work with the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, which he directs.
Still, Ocarina 2 is the subject of the moment as Wang charms an iPhone to do his musical bidding. The new app picks up where its predecessor left off: giving users (and there are millions who paid for the original Ocarina, which became one of the top 20 iPhone apps of all time) the ability to play gentle and soulful music by blowing into their phone and tapping carefully on digital keys on their screens. Now, though, the new version adds a set of fresh set of features that are geared toward bringing the hit tool current with today's leading music games and apps.
Among the most important new features in Ocarina 2, Wang explains, is the bringing of everything together in the app itself. The original Ocarina offered song books to teach people how to play any of hundreds of songs, but they had to go to Smule's Web site to get them. Now, the song books are all in the app itself.
Just as important, while Smule has charged 99 cents or more for Ocarina, the new version is -- and is expected to remain -- free. The app will come with a few gratis songs, but Smule will also sell song packs that it expects to generate substantial revenue. With its "tune" packs, users will get five songs for a dollar, Wang explained, while they'll get two songs for a dollar with more premium tracks. The library is set to offer a wide variety of popular songs and classics, including some from Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars, themes to video games such as Legend of Zelda, and the "X Files" theme.
At the same time, Ocarina 2 has added a set of game mechanics and achievements designed to let people have more fun -- and gauge their progress as they learn. Among the ways that works is through what's being called "breath points," which people earn each time they play a song, by, of course, breathing artfully into the microphone.
The point, though, is that Ocarina 2 will track users' progress and give them a sense of how they're doing as they attempt to learn new songs -- or even how to use the tool.
Ocarina 2 also challenges people by giving them the blueprint for which buttons to push in real time if they want to get a song right, much as many of the karaoke and Guitar Hero-like games on the market do. And in that sense, Ocarina 2 is adding one of the most fundamental modern music game functions to a 2008-circa app that seemed a bit long in the tooth. But doing so with the reputation and the loyal fan base is likely to make the app's second major iteration a big hit.