Question: When is a guitar more than a guitar?
Answer: When it’s a piece of digitally augmented hardware that embeds an iPhone within its casing and serves as a clandestine entry point for a bidirectional music platform.
When Santa Clara-based Incident Technologies launched the Gtar at TechCrunch Disrupt New York last year, got a lot of hype – “disruption defined,” said TechCrunch – and the surprise benefit of standing out as a hardware play amid of sea of software.
After coming in at second place in the pitch competition, the Gtar went on to enjoy several rounds of favorable press, with tech watchers and music folks impressed by the smart integration of an iPhone and apps into the actual guitar, which still felt and played like a normal stringed instrument. Thanks to the app magic, Gtar players can see the notes of a song they are playing mapped out on the instrument’s fretboard, and they can change the sound of the instrument with the tap of a touchscreen button. Incident went on to raise more than $350,000 for the project on Kickstarter. It had also raised $745,000 in seed funding.
What stood out more than anything else was the novelty of the instrument. From the tech perspective, here was something that leveraged the power of the iPhone, but in an unexpected direction: to improve a hardware experience. From a musician’s perspective, here was a low-cost synthesizer ($399) that could not only teach guitar but also sound like different instruments.
But what Incident’s founder and CEO, Idan Beck, didn’t talk about was how the Gtar is actually just the first step towards realizing a wider vision – one in which the Gtar is one of a suite of instruments interacting with a platform for developers and consumers that could open up new possibilities in music creation and distribution. Not only would a platform serve as a distribution and sales point for content, but it would also host third-party apps that build on the Gtar experience.
A platform has been at the core of what Incident has been building since Day One, says Beck, but to make it work the startup needed something unique to tie it to, and to kickstart a community of potential users. The Gtar is necessary to the vision, because Incident’s platform will be the only way people can get their content to play nicely with the instrument.
An SDK is already out in the wild, but the first key part of the platform is a content creation tool that Incident will release in the coming months. “Initially,” Beck concedes, “this tool’s going to kind of suck.” But it will be the only way to get content onto the Gtar. The tool’s basic function will allow users to access tracks on the platform and remix or repurpose them for their own use. For example, a game developer might pull down a song from the platform for use in a Web game. Even if no money changes hands, the tool will track the attribution tail so that the original artist gets credit.
While the content-creation tool might initially be crude, Beck sees it evolving into a powerful piece of software that might ultimately compete with high-end production software, such as that provided by Ableton, going well beyond the capabilities of other tools that are available for free, such as Apple’s GarageBand. The tool, which is built in HTML5 and will operate within the browser, is about 80 percent complete, Beck says.
Incident already has the beginnings of an app platform – the offerings include sound-effect apps and a virtual recording studio – but it will be building that out with social features and collaboration tools, so users can see what their friends are listening to and using. While all its propritary software tools will always be free, Beck says, the plan is to take a cut of sales of paid apps and content, similar to how Apple takes a 30 percent piece of all app revenue through iOS.
“We don’t just want to make a product that people want to play, but we want to really embed it in an entire ecosystem,” says Beck of the Gtar. However, the Gtar won’t be the only instrument in this ecosystem. Beck says more products are coming down the chute. At this point, he won’t disclose which exact instruments we can expect to see in the near future, but one obvious contender would be a keyboard, which has for decades been augmented by software anyway and would seem to lend itself perfectly to the Gtar model. Says Beck, “We’re building something really large.”
Having a big vision and a nifty instrument, of course, is not the same thing as having an actual platform product. Incident’s first challenge will be proving that it can build what it is describing, which will be no small task with its team of just six people. Money will also be a concern. One year on from its Kickstarter campaign, and more than 18 months since it closed its seed round, it’s likely that Incident’s runway is rapidly contracting. If you also take into account venture capitalists’ reluctance to fund hardware startups, the company’s immediate financial prospects can’t look all that bright.
Even though Beck says he does see a day where there are ways to interact with the Incident platform that aren’t hardware specific, the company’s fortunes for now still rest very much on the Gtar, the company’s only source of revenue. So far it has sold more than 1,000 of the $399 instruments in just over a year. About 800 of those sales, however, came from the Kickstarter campaign alone.
Ultimately, the platform will be key to Incident’s business. The question right now, however, is whether or not the platform will have a stable enough foundation.