Knowing about music makes you cool, but looking up music makes you uncool; that is the paradox at the center of Sly Sound. Created by Trevor Burnham and Wes Hazard, the mobile app that works like Shazam without looking like Shazam took second place at this weekend’s Comedy Hack Day at the MIT Media Lab.
Sly Sound activates and looks like a simple Twitter feed—a totally acceptable thing to check on your phone at a cool party. But secretly, the app is identifying the music playing nearby before sending information about the song to your phone via text. The user can then bounce from their Twitter feed to their text messages (classic cool guy phone behavior), and learn everything they need to know to impress their friends.
I asked the creative force behind Sly Sound—and crimefighting duo to be—Burnham & Hazard a little about their creation:
Wes, you pitched this idea on Saturday, what’s the origin story for Sly Sound?
WH: I got the idea from my intense desire for such a service to actually exist. I DJ at a college radio station with a very hip/indie identity and (whether it’s justified or not) I always feel self-conscious about asking for song info or whipping out my phone to Shazam something that’s being played by another DJ in the booth. I don’t think anyone would ever actually judge me for it, but as someone who likes to believe they have a pretty good knowledge of music, it can be hard to admit that you need that help.
Trevor, you handled most the front end/back end development, tell me how the app came together.
TB: This was my first iOS app, so there were a lot of technical hurdles that affected the app’s design. I didn’t have time to do anything visually except open a website. I realized twitter.com would work perfectly: You open the app, it loads twitter.com, it looks like a Twitter app. I spent several hours trying to get song recognition working. I really did. But by noon the day of the demo, I told Wes we’d have to fake it. It was probably for the best. The song recognition service we were looking at, Echo Nest, required a minimum 20 second sample, which would’ve made for a slow-paced demo even if it had worked reliably. Wes was insistent on using actual texts rather than some other form of notification. I was reluctant because that meant I had to figure out Twilio’s API, and it added a lot of variability to the timing: The app would send a request to Twilio’s server, Twilio would send the phone a text, and it’d take something like 3-7 seconds to appear. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. I think the fact that people were seeing real texts on a real phone at the demo allowed people to suspend their disbelief.
Did the idea evolve at all over the course of the weekend?
WH: I’d say the biggest change as we progressed was jacking up the level of snark in the messages the user receives. It morphed from an app that simply delivered discreet track info and trivia to something that openly judged you for your music choices. Not only was that funnier, but I felt it more accurately represented the hipster ethos of the project.
How did you guys feel about your demo once you finished?
TB: I felt pretty good when we left the stage, but I’m still (pleasantly) surprised that we made runner-up. Truth For Humanity was the clear winner, and I’m glad they got all the accolades they deserved. I thought Breaker Bot, iCare, or My Real Puppy would take the runner-up slot. They were all brilliant. Maybe the judges wanted to recognize a project with a slightly less cynical message: That pretending to know more about music than your friends is cool.
Now that you’ve come down from the high/delerium, how do you feel about the weekend?
WH: Mainly, I can’t wait to come back. I’m not a tech guy, at all. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the event. But putting people who are excited, open-minded, and talented in a variety of disciplines all together in an amazing space like the Media Lab seems to be a pretty solid formula for awesome. It was really rad to see comedy expressed so effectively via technology, which isn’t usually the first place I go looking for (intentional) laughs.