New electronic musical instrument AlphaSphere unveiled

A team of Bristol sound engineers has invented a brand new musical instrument. It is called the AlphaSphere, and they think it will be a big hit with electronic musicians.

Adam Place came up with the idea at university after growing bored with conventional keyboards to play synthesized music.

"On a keyboard, the keys are just controllers, they're not really like notes on a piano," he said.

"But with the AlphaSphere, the notes change as you press harder and harder, you really engage with the instrument, and you can perform with it."

It is certainly a clever bit of technology. Forty-eight pressure pads are arranged round a sphere, like a large football.

Press on one pad, and the sphere plays a drum beat. But press a little harder and the beat accelerates.

Another might be programmed with a chord with added harmonics coming in when you press the pad harder.

Hi-tech entrepreneurs

The Alphasphere may or may not take off with musicians but as a business idea it is already winning approval.

Adam and his friends will be showing off their invention at a garden party in Bristol which brings hi-tech entrepreneurs and inventors together with investors and big firms.

IBM will be there and the innovation group from Microsoft. And for many in the city, this new instrument is exactly what they are looking for.

For years now, Bristol has designed millions of silicon chips which are used all over the world. Companies like Xmos have grown from a few computer engineers in the University of Bristol to a multi-million pound business employing hundreds of people.

In 2004, another tech start-up, Icera, found a new way to get mobile phones to connect with WiFi and 3G networks.

Benefit from their innovations

Its chips are now used worldwide and last month the firm was bought by the US giant NVidia for $360m (£220m).

Until now though, Bristol companies have made chips not consumer products. Now engineers in the city are trying to create the products themselves.

Nick Sturge runs the University of Bristol's incubator for new firms, called SETsquared. He said it was vital that local firms benefited more from their own innovations.

"If you sell a chip you make $10," he said. "If you invent a product that uses that chip, then you make $100, $500. That's why the AlphaSphere is exciting."

Economists call this moving up the value chain, getting closer to the consumer. And if the AlphaSphere can help Bristol do that it really will be music to the ears of the city's tech businesses.

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