To preface- I am a music geek. I remember when the first prototypes were revealed for the Roli Seaboard. It sounded like a great concept, but too good to be true when it came time for a final product. They’ve gone ahead and proved everyone wrong.

Roli has developed an innovative (and super cool) way to translate ideas into sound. The control over the shape and tone of each individual note is far beyond what you would get with a traditional piano.

Major artists have been picking these new boards up, and consequently been getting a good deal of attention for it. I personally can’t wait to see what Cory Henry (of Snarky Puppy) brings to the group with this new piece of gear.

Its hard to describe why the Seaboard is so incredible with just words. Watch this video before reading on.

Roland Lamb has a great analogy for comparing the piano to other instruments: Sound on a piano is very pixelated, in separate discrete elements, and if you tie all those together it can feel continuous, he says.

But other instruments, like a violin, are high resolution, because the sound is continuous and changing. That is, when you hit a piano key, you can vary the note by hitting it hard or so soft. There, each note is far more like clay that gets shaped by the pressure of the players finger or the duration of his breath.

Roli Seaboard

Around 2009, as a design student at London’s Royal College of Arts, Lamb realized that didn’t have to be true. He’s spent the four years since working on a keyboard that has the same nuances and range as, say, a saxophone, and the finished product went on sale last year. And more recently, the MoMA Design Store included it in their newest collection (it costs $3,500).

The Seaboard Grand looks like a piano, but instead of black and white ivory keys, it has a black silicone surface, and instead of keys that align neatly, it has “keys” that ripple and undulate across its surface.

That rubber top layer coats a range of sensors that have been carefully engineered to respond to pressure and hold time. They connect to the sound engine, so that each note can be manually varied in ways that other piano keys can’t. “That opens up the sound palette of what you can do in real time,” Lamb says.

Like other keyboards, the Seaboard can be programmed to sound like other instruments. With the tuning, the fidelity is so good that Lamb says a trained ear can’t tell the difference between a Seaboard trumpet and a real one.

Roli Seaboard

When Lamb came up with the idea for the Seaboard, he had no idea how it would work. He was armed with a philosophy degree—he studied Sanskrit and classical Chinese philosophy at Harvard as an undergrad—and he knew how to play the piano.

He basically figured, “there’s no reason why when you strike a piano key, you couldn’t add a gesture to add more data.” At RCA he began learning enough about materials sciences and software to conclude that his idea was possible, so he built a vaporware version of what would be the Seaboard Grand and made a movie of it, with sound dubbed over, to show other people what he had in mind.

These days Lamb’s company Roli has 40 engineers working on the Sea Interface, the company’s sensor platform. Getting the Sea Interface just right is so complicated because the sensors aren’t laying flat, like they are on other musical track pads or tablets.

In 3-D, the chain of events that translates a finger pushing down on a key into a nuanced musical note becomes much more complex—that’s why Lamb thinks no one has done it before.

The result is a device that allows for all the depth and history of an acoustic instrument, with all the on-the-fly versatility that electronic musicians are used to.

It’s been a hit: the composer Hans Zimmer has used it, and the musician A.R. Rahman used the Seaboard to play at a Sufi festival in Dubai, in front of thousands of people.

As much as the Seaboard Grand reimagines what an instrument can be and do, it’s also a huge hint at how we might be interacting with technology in the future. “In a lot of areas of technology, computers are incredibly fast, and on many different levels can do so much,” Lamb says. “But our brains are so fast, and the way we connect our brains to computers are unbelievably antiquated. In music studios around the world, people are inputting data into a computer via a keyboard.”

When it comes to UIs, Lamb says he’s in the same camp as Bret Victor (former human interface inventor at Apple and a Big Thinker in this a department): our hands are powerful, expressive tools, and as long as we’re working on computers and tablets we’re still stuck in the typewriter-and-paper era of creation, and won’t reach new potential.

“In most mobile tablets, it’s all tapping and swiping, but the human hand is capable of much much more subtle information hand gestures,” Lamb says. “The bandwidth of how we connect our brains to computers needs to be expanded.” Via