Zivix is in the musical instrument business, but not the sort of instrument you've seen before.
When the 14-employee Minneapolis start-up launches its $300 JamStik in July — through retail stores it declined to identify yet — the only question may be how to classify the product. The JamStik is a battery-powered, guitar-like instrument that can be considered an amateur music tutorial, an iPad entertainment accessory or a professional musician's songwriting companion.
"We want to make music more accessible," said Chad Koehler, vice president of business development and operations for the eight-year-old firm, which has so far privately raised $4 million for product development. "We're trying to make the experience of learning to play more engaging."
While the JamStik resembles a 15-inch-long electric guitar, it's not. It has strings and frets like a guitar, but makes no audible sound. Instead, it uses electronic sensors to track the vibration of its strings and the movements of a person's fingers above them, then sends those digital signals via Wi-Fi to an iPhone, iPad, Windows PC or Apple Macintosh. There the JamStik's digital signals are played as music. But, as a result of software manipulation of the signals, the music could sound like a variety of instruments, such as a guitar, a horn section or a piano.
The teaching is embedded in Zivix's own educational apps that cause an iPhone, iPad or computer screen to display different graphics depending on the player's goals. Those learning to play the guitar will see an image of the actual positions of their fingers suspended over the strings and frets, along with tips on how to correct any mistakes.
Those wanting to practice will see a screen similar to that of the Xbox 360 game "Guitar Hero," although JamStik emphasizes playing real notes instead of pushing Guitar Hero's colored buttons. Professional musicians can see the notes and chords they've played converted into standard musical notation for guitar, a shortcut in the work of songwriting.
Popular Science magazine named JamStik one of its top 10 inventions of the year in 2013, mostly based on the way it teaches amateurs how to play the guitar. But Chris Heille, the Zivix music product specialist, said it's more than that.
"JamStik blurs the line between what's educational and what's entertainment," Heille said.
To do that, Zivix has developed a simplified way of linking musical instruments to iPhones, iPads and computers, said Dan Sullivan, the Zivix president and chief technology officer, and the JamStik's inventor.
Until now, connecting real electric guitars to those devices required intermediary gadgets using the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), such as the currently available Fishman TriplePlay wireless guitar controller, Roland GK Pickup or Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer.
"You needed specialized hardware before," Sullivan said. "But the JamStik can work directly with lots of low-cost apps on the iPad." Among those apps are Apple's well-known GarageBand software, Koehler said.
The product also has a convenience factor.
"Right now there's not another guitar product that connects to the iPad wirelessly," Heille said. "And we're offering a 15-inch device that you can put in a bag with an iPad."
The price is designed to promote that take-it-with-you attitude, said Ed Cannon, the CEO. "You might not want to take your $3,000 guitar with you on an airplane, but you wouldn't mind taking a $300 device like JamStik."
No lag effect
Musicians at all levels of skill may notice one other thing: The maddening fraction-of-a-second delays between when a note is played on a guitar and when it becomes audible on a computer — called "latency" — have been largely eliminated.
Latency exists for real electric guitars because they produce analog signals that are inevitably slowed a bit when they are converted to digital signals by an iPhone, iPad or computer.
The JamStik does it faster because, rather than convert analog signals to digital, it uses infrared light to sense finger motion, Sullivan said.
"The heart of how it works with low latency is the infrared sensors" inside the JamStik's guitar-like neck, Sullivan said. "We can detect finger motion before the finger touches the string, and that's the difference." The company has six patents on the JamStik.
But in the end, the Zivix strategy is to ride the wave of mobile device popularity caused by smartphones and tablet computers.
"I used to teach guitar lessons," Sullivan said. "It was like being a psychiatrist, because I had to listen to the reasons that students hadn't been able to practice the lesson. I think the mobility of the JamStik will be the key to getting people to practice, because you can just pick it up and practice anywhere."