PLAN 76:
Alumnus Profile: Eran Egozy

Eran Egozy, SB/SM’95

Harmonix Music Systems, arguably the premier inventor of music video games in the world – original developer of the Guitar Hero series – is perhaps best known now as developer of Rock Band, Rock Band 2 and The Beatles: Rock Band, full-blown band simulation games that combine guitar, bass, drum and singing game play, as well as online multiplayer competition and co-op play. Rock Band and its sequels and spin-offs have become a true cultural phenomenon, hailed as ‘the ultimate music game’ (Wired) and ‘the best party game ever made’ (Time).

The geniuses behind these marvels are alumni Eran Egozy (SB/SM’95) and Alex Rigopulos (SB’92, SM’94), who co-founded Harmonix in Cambridge in 1995. The two became acquainted when Professor Tod Machover assigned them together on projects at the Media Lab. ‘I don’t know why Tod decided to assign us together,’ says Egozy, ‘but he did and we totally hit it off.’ Indeed they did. Their worlds of music and technology have merged into projects that have made music an interactive experience for musicians and non-musicians globally.

Egozy still remembers the exhilarating projects he worked on at the Lab. Machover, he says, ‘had high expectations. He was inspiring in that he was fearless. There’s this certain vibe that Tod has. He never says no. He is imbued with this attitude that the show must go on. In my line of work now, we have deadlines and you have to hit them with a really high quality bar. Tod had an appreciation of that.’

The projects Egozy worked on with Machover were exciting for him. The probability was small that a project would end in a doldrum of semester finals. Instead, explains Egozy, ‘most projects you work on with Tod culminate in an actual concert performance. There’s this great rush that comes from seeing all of the work you’ve been slaving over during the last year come to a head in this one night when the show must go on, no matter what happens, with new technology that has never been seen before. That can be scary and exciting at the same time.’

Egozy’s memories of past projects include hooking up Yo-Yo Ma’s cello with sensors (‘We gave expert musicians expert instruments.’), going on tour with Penn and Teller (‘They do these outrageous magic tricks; they were working with Tod on a project, and I was the main programmer of the software’), and a hyperviolin concerto performance with world-renowned violinist Ani Kavafian (‘I was on stage turning pages for her; I am a clarinet player, and it was a huge thrill for me’).

One project that led to the genesis of Harmonix was Joystick Music, a way of letting non-musicians create music by using two computer joysticks. This principle became the mission behind Harmonix. ‘Our mission at Harmonix is to let everyone enjoy the thrill of making music without needing the years of training and frustration that can come with trying to learn how to play a real instrument,’ says Egozy. ‘We were essentially inventing the technology to do that.’

What is Egozy working on now? Harmonix and publisher MTV Games are introducing Rock Band 3 later this year, featuring a new keyboard controller, three-part harmonies and more new features, including Rock Band Pro, which enables players to learn how to play actual guitar, bass or drums through Rock Band game play.

Egozy’s description of the new mode: ‘You start off with playing the simple subset of the song. Everything you are playing and fingering fits into the chord structure of the song.’ Like previous versions of Rock Band, the fingering and speed increase in difficulty but unlike previous versions, the player is learning the real chords and fingering patterns for the instrument he or she is playing. Garrett Martin of the Boston Herald says ‘It’s better than taking lessons.’

The future of music: where are we headed? Egozy views music history as revolutionary points in time of how the public has consumed music: the debut of actual recorded music, CDs, digital distribution of music and now the ability to listen to and download music via the Internet. ‘We’re doing the same kind of thing,’ Egozy says, ‘but we’re giving people a much deeper way of experiencing music – by doing it interactively.’

Recalling his time in the Media Lab, Egozy advises today’s students: ‘It’s a relatively short time in your life. You might not have an appreciation of how quickly the time goes by and what a small slice of your whole career it is, but you can learn so much in those few years that sets up the rest of your life. Maximize those years as much as you can. Take advantage of the opportunities that come up. Find the things that excite you. Try to be as creative as possible. The less you think of it as simply going to class and doing homework, the more you will see the rich landscape of opportunities before you.’

His advice to alumni: ‘You need to give back. MIT is an amazing institution. They rely on all of us who have gotten a lot out of it to give back to the Institute. Financial donations, going back and reconnecting with undergrads and grad students, and seeing what’s going on: It’s important to maintain the strength of the MIT community.’

– Stephanie Hatch
Posted July 2010