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Students win mtvU grant for music visualization software

The idea started with late-night discussions and a hacked iPod nano, but Osiris, a project created by three Brown undergrads, soon gained the attention of mtvU and Cisco Systems, which granted them $25,000 for their project. Zachary McCune '10, Sebastian Gallese '10 and Schuyler Maclay '10 were one of five groups - and the only comprised solely of undergraduates - who won a grant in the second annual Digital Incubator contest to pursue digital media-related projects.

Osiris provides visualizations of songs by using online visual databases like Flickr. Using the lyrics of the song, the program searches keywords in image databases to match up the music with pictures.

The students initially created Osiris as a final project for a digital art seminar taught by Mark Tribe '90, assistant professor of modern culture and media studies.

According to Tribe, the course is designed for students to make art. "The way I run it, we do a lot of reading, we have discussions and we look at art, but instead of exams, we have these final projects in which students collaborate in groups of three to four."

It was in this class that McCune, Maclay and Gallese met. Gallese said it took several late night meetings for the idea to really come together.

"We were thinking that we could do cool graphic displays on iPods but then thought 'Oh, that doesn't really work,'" Gallese said. "Then we started messing around with visualizers, and we realized that people had never really done anything with that before."

The project, named for the Egyptian god of the underworld, is different from those currently available, which only use abstract images based on the music that is playing.

"The visualizer is extremely static, and one of the most unsophisticated pieces of technology that people still have on their computers," said McCune, a former Herald staff writer. "It's probably the same that it's been since color computers were introduced."

"We've gone from a predominately audio, to audio-visual, to an interactive age. This combines everything and takes everything to another level," Maclay said. "As an artist, I was interested in that transition. If you look at music, it went from purely music to the development of MTV and music videos, live shows being performances, not just sound. I was interested in what the next steps might be."

Encouraged by Tribe, the three students applied for the mtvU "Digital Incubator" development team grant. The company's press release promised that winning teams would be granted access to "everything necessary to launch a successful online business: the creative firepower and reach of MtvU, the tech expertise of Cisco, and the financial backing to see their idea realized - all while still in college."

"We submitted this in January. ... We were crossing our fingers every day," Gallese said. When MTV first called in May to tell them they had a crew in Providence and wanted to film a formal interview, the group got suspicious. "We've grown up in an age of reality TV," McCune said. "We were expecting to be Punk'd or something. We suspected something but we had to feign absolute shock and awe." But the trio needn't have worried - MTV just wanted to tell them they had won $25,000.

"We were very appreciative of someone actually investing financial resources in an 'art' project," Gallese said. "It's an honor to have people trust us and give us enough responsibility to do this."

The three students have now undertaken different roles for the project. McCune has taken over as press manager, while Maclay serves as the contact and art managers. Gallese is the technical manager. The group has also added Nick Greenfield '09 as business manager.

"It's a different feeling being in charge, being responsible for people working for you," Gallese said.

McCune said that because none of the group's members had extensive computer science knowledge, most of the funds would go toward outsourcing the tech development. "We're mainly using the money to hire outside people to collaborate with us, as well as taking care of server space that needs to be paid for, domain name, online certificates, but much of our money goes to hiring outside human resources," Gallese said.

"It's challenging because it originated as an art project, we still like to think of it as having aesthetic aspects," McCune said. "It's kind of like we designed a sculpture, but are not going to do any of the actual sculpting."

The group is looking at two different markets for the visualizer. "Osiris LITE is going to be a free, web-based program that we hope to have finished in late August," Greenfield said. "This will be available to the general public via a Web site."

"Osiris PREMIUM is a substantially more sophisticated product that we intend to individually customize and sell to nightclubs and lounges," Greenfield said. "PREMIUM would access a curated image library and a variety of other media sources, rather than simply interfacing with Flickr, as at least early versions of LITE will likely do."

The Osiris Project will compete for more funds in the fall, including a supplemental grant of $100,000. The group submitted a business plan in June for consideration.

"We have a bunch of different ideas of where it's going to go, if we get more money," Gallese said. "If not, it's an art project at heart, it's going to stay out (there) and the community can use it."


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