EnCue by Octava link

IRC projects emerge and progress along a variety of pathways. Some are generated in-house by the IRC staff. Others grow from collaborations with faculty, who come to us with ideas and funding, or take part in our Summer Faculty Research Fellowship Program. Projects have different lifespans as well. Some end in a single film or website; others use the IRC as an incubator and go on to independent production, like EnCue.

Professor of Music Linda Dusman applied twice to the IRC Summer Faculty Fellowship program, and never received an award. But she doggedly found other funding sources, and over the course of several years brought her idea for an app to enhance orchestral and symphonic performances to reality. EnCue by Octava (the company that Dusman founded with her collaborator, Eric Smallwood) is now being used regularly by the London Symphony Orchestra, the National Orchestral Institute, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

EnCue allows orchestras to deliver commentary about music and musicians in real time on mobile devices. The information scrolls smoothly by, on a dark screen, in a way that enhances rather than distracts from the performance. The ultra-slow animations keep the focus on the music and the content brings wandering attention back to the details of the musical performance at special moments during a piece.

A sample screen image

Dusman had the idea for EnCue (then known as Symphony Interactive) in 2010, during a UMBC Orchestra concert, when she found herself whispering details about the music to UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. At the same time, she realized how the newly emerged smartphone and tablet computer allowed for new kinds of interactions with devices. She found some funding and brought her idea to the IRC. There, around the conference table, she was put together with Eric Smallwood, a UMBC graduate (BA and MFA) who was the IRC’s Technical Director for animation at the time. Dusman and Smallwood, along with other IRC staff and interns worked up version 2.0 which they tested at an orchestra rehearsal. The app crashed, but the team kept at it. Version 2.1 showed more promise but eventually crashed as well.

Around this point, Dusman and Smallwood began working with the Maryland Innovation Initiative, a program of TEDCO, an independent organization created by the Maryland Legislature "to assist in the creation and growth of technology-based businesses" in partnership with select research universities in the State They received mentoring as they wrote a business plan and grappled with patent and intellectual property issues. After three tries, they received funding and were able to hire a professional computer programmer. By this point, Smallwood was working as a faculty member in Visual Arts, and the IRC was no longer involved. This is what should happen as a project progresses from research phase to a production and business phase.

EnCue at a rehearsal of the London Symphony Orchestra

It took many more versions, rounds of funding, and a few years for the app to reach its current commercial version. Orchestras can draw on EnCue’s library of content (about thirty pieces), contract with the EnCue team for custom content, or write their own. One of the biggest challenges was working out server issues, so that multiple orchestras can use the software simultaneously.

Another sample image, showing the simple, unobtrusive graphics

What’s really exciting about this project is its potential for use in all sorts of ways, not just for orchestral performances. It could easily be adapted for theatrical or dance works, for example. But the key is that the software running the app is really a system that delivers content in real time on mobile devices. So it could be used at conferences, for example, to annotate presentations.

Regardless of where it goes next, EnCue is an IRC success story.