No strings attached -- but 'virtual guitar' wails

LONDON (Reuters) - A guitar with no strings attached has become a reality. British researchers have created a “stringless” virtual guitar that is putting the power of music in the palms of people’s hands.

The Kurv Guitar does not look much like a guitar - it consists of a button pad that fits neatly into the player’s hand and an oversized, sensor-packed guitar pick that recognizes strumming movements. The player strums the air with a pick-style controller, simulating real guitar playing.

Chords and notes are generated by pressing down on the buttons on the palm pad while strumming with the pick. A smartphone app decodes the force and movement of the pick to produce the desired sound: electric, bass or acoustic. The buttons can be mapped to suit both right and left-handed players.

The guitar’s developers, London-based music-tech startup Kurv, which was founded in 2014, say that it can allow anyone to learn and play songs in a matter of minutes, even if they have never picked up a real guitar.

“What we’ve done is take a whole bunch of different sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, pressure sensitive stuff; and then combine that with a mobile phone which has the computational power to actually drive real-time music synthesis,” Kurv co-founder Suran Goonatilake told Reuters.

“And then (we) combined that with another bunch of technologies, in this case machine learning, to really understand your gestures.

“So it’s kind of combining a whole bunch of different technologies with music knowledge, and that’s how the Kurv has come about,” Goonatilake said.

Key to the Kurv’s potential as a viable musical instrument is the computing power available in smartphones that can run advanced music synthesis engines, as well as their compact size, Goonatilake said.

This elevates Kurv above a novelty or gaming device, such as the Guitar Hero video games, he said.

“It’s highly portable, so if they (musicians) want to compose on the go then they can just plug their headphones in... (It is for) people who’ve never played something before playing their first chord, all the way to people who can play music and use it as an additional device to their current instruments.”

Professional guitarists might take a bit more convincing, preferring a physical instrument. But Goonatilake said a difference of opinion was to be expected.

“I think if you’ve invested 10 years of your life learning to play the guitar you probably won’t like the Kurv because you might think it’s a short-cut, if you like.”On the other hand, if it’s someone who’s never played the guitar then this is a very quick way to master it.”

Kurv Guitar recently launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter. The patent-pending prototype is still being tested and perfected, but the makers hope early adopters will take the technology to new levels.

The company is also set to release a software development kit to give users the power to create new musical instruments using the Kurv.

Editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Heinrich