GuitarBots Songs – Robots and People behind the scenes

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Did you know that the GuitarBots soundtrack contains more than 60 unique songs, performed by both robots and live musicians?

While most of the instruments are played by machines programmed by our in-house composer and audio engineer Markus Pajakkala, there are also lots of real instrument tracks to spice up the mix and make it more organic:

In addition to the basic band instruments you can hear for example the bass clarinet, tin whistle and accordion. For some special tracks we’ve used external musicians to do stuff we couldn’t do ourselves. To give credit to these fantastic musicians, here is a short description of who they are and what they do:

Vocals

All female vocal tracks in the game are performed by Saara Jokiaho, a talented finnish singer and actress. She works mainly in the music theatre field but is also using her acting skills in another Helsinki-based entertainment industry startup. Saara sings the lead parts on Playing in the Park, Open Skies, Gazing at the Stars and Rap Robots, and background vocals on the Update Song and Celtic Bots.

Special instruments

Tero Hyväluoma is a renowned violinist and folk musician who plays anything from finnish folk music and bluegrass to heavy rock, performing with bands like Snekka, Frigg, Hot’n’Tot and Korpiklaani. Teros fiddling can be heard in Celtic Bots, Russkii Robot and El Condor Pasa.

Tapani Luojus plays the accordion on Celtic Bots and Russkii Robot. He is an experienced teacher and performer, continuing the long tradition of finnish accordion playing.

In-house talent

But let’s not forget to credit the Ovelin music team for the rest of the instruments. As mentioned earlier, Markus is responsible for programming all the software instruments, plus recording, mixing and mastering. But in addition, he also plays all the wind instruments (saxophones, flutes, bass clarinet, tin whistle, harmonica), keyboards and percussion and sings vocals in many of the songs, e.g. Robot City and Anarchy in the A.I. Outside Ovelin, Markus realizes his artistic ambitions in Poutatorviand Utopianisti.

I’m mainly responsible for the overall design of the music content and individual levels, but also play electric guitars on many tracks and sing vocals on e.g. House of the Rising Sun and the Valentine Song. Outside Ovelin I’m a passionate musician, performing mainly with Solaz and Popup.

Enjoy the music and dig the Robot Band, but remember that behind every mechanic musician or virtual performer, there is always human performance.

Yours truly,

- Joaquin

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The author of the post, Joaquin Hernandez, is the music education wizard extraordinaire at Ovelin ltd, the developer of GuitarBots. He makes the impossible possible for aspiring guitarists.

Building teams in Startups : On and off site

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From time to time, it´s good to try to take a bit of distance of the product development, and do something else with the team instead.

It does not always have to be a carefully organized team event: just taking a bit of casual time is enough to keep the culture and environment great.

The past year has been amazing for Ovelin. We have had a lot of changes, a lot of new people joining the team and of course, overall in new situation as company. To get everyone on the same page on the new phase that the company moved after securing funding, we decided to take the whole team offsite to a trip to Switzerland. This trip worked well on both getting new people familiarized with the old team members and on the other hand it offered chance to also look critically through our product roadmap. Some startups like Expensify actually take their team once a year to extended off site working and I can really why. As a team we got a lot out from the trip….and the skiing wasn’t too bad either :)

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Of course you cant do this all the time, so what about rest of the year then?  I personally think that the more simpler the better the activity often is. Booking a sauna space for evening or then just grabbing beers on Friday gives at least for me much more than fine dining & program. When the sun is out and the weather nice, we often just enjoyed the Finnish summer Fridays in nearby park, playing guitar (that is the benefits of a music startup:  that you always have someone playing guitar and singing), having a few refreshing beverages and playing outdoor games.

We had a trip to the local zoo to check in real life if the animals really could be hypnotized with guitar playing as in our game Wildchords. Results? Well let’s just say that we definitely got reactions, both animals & humans.

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So what is my point (in addition of sharing some cool pics about our trips) with this post? BeforeOvelin, I used to work in a big >2000 person organization and I remember hating almost all the company events. Even if you worked in a great team, the company policies and hierarchies often play their role in everything you try to organize. Working together in small startup brings the benefit of being able to interact closer and being able to do what feels right instead of what is the common practice. So do grab those Friday beers, do sports or just hang out playing games if you feel like it, but the main thing is to spend some quality time with your teammates!

- Mikko

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Mikko Kaipainen is the co-founder and COO of Ovelin. He likes sticking quotes of company employees on office walls to ensure their place in history for all eternity.

Behind the Scenes : GuitarBots Development Environment

What makes it run…?

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Matti Ryynänen, the lead programmer of Ovelin gives us a sneak peek into how the game development of GuitarBots came to life, evolved and continues to grow.

 

The starting Point

GuitarBots’ development started in the beginning of 2012. We knew from the start that we wanted it to be a multi-platform guitar playing game that would take the guitar playing to much further than our previous iOS-only  title WildChordsWildChords was built with open-source game engine ORX (www.orx-project.org) but we needed a more mature game engine to work with. We evaluated a few possible options and quickly decided to go forward with Unity3D (www.unity3d.com).

Unity3D

Unity3D turned out be excellent choice for the development of GuitarBots. It has component-based coding architecture, good tools for art development, rapid development with on-the-fly code compilation, and multi-platform build support – Everything to really helped us to concentrate on the game. Unity3D developers have an active community, so searching for answers to Unity-related questions is quick and easy.

Content Tools

After we had the basic architecture for evaluating notes and chords from user’s guitar playing, we needed tools for developing the content for songs and exercises.

We implemented an in-house exercise editor that allowed our music team to create new exercises forGuitarBots. The game is content-driven, so the exercise editor presented a very important step for us to get the song packages and exercises into the game. Thanks to our hard-working music team, we soon had lots of songs and exercises available despite the game being still in heavy development in the early stages.

Along with the exercise content, we also implemented a text-based configuration of GuitarBotstutorials so that our music team could create new tutorials without any intervention from the coders. Also, the background scenes in GuitarBots are created and configured separately by our artists with a camera-drive tool and messaging system that allows scenes and the Bots to react according to user performance in the game.

Continuous Integration Setup

Although our development team was small, we wanted to setup continuous integration (CI) environment for the game code and the content as well. The main component of our CI is a build server that checks out our code repository every once in awhile, builds the project from scratch, reports if there are compilation errors in the code, and publishes the up-to-minute builds for our team to test them out. We are using Jenkins (www.jenkins-ci.org) to carry out these tasks.

The build system creates a new web-browser build (similarly to what you now see at guitarbots.com) immediately when new code is checked into our code repository. When a new build of GuitarBots is considered ready for publishing, we flip a switch to redirect GuitarBots users to the desired build revision. Jenkins runs nightly builds for iOS, Android, Mac OSX, and Windows although they are not yet publicly available. In addition, iOS builds are uploaded to TestFlight (testflightapp.com) to make the latest builds available for our team to test them with iPhones and iPads.

Jenkins is also configured to build and push new songs and exercises to a server from which the game then downloads the content. This way our music team may push out new content to the game immediately, without a need to make a new build of the game.

Room for Improvement

Of course, there’s always room for improvement. We are currently looking for a proper automated testing setup of the game and guitarbots.com online service. Since we updating GuitarBots and publishing the changes to our users frequently (even daily), an automated test setup would save time and keep developers calm by finding out at least the most obvious bugs in new releases.

For usability testing, we have used a quick and cost-effective service at www.usertesting.com. However, the game usability tracking and automatic bug reporting could be integrated directly to the game, for example, via our metrics system.

- Matti Ryynänen

The author of the post is the Lead Developer of Ovelin, who enjoys coding like gardening and prefers machines to humans as martial arts partners.

Take time before acting

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Helsinki-based startup Ovelin has developed two wildly successful guitar-learning games – becoming #1 music game in 34 countries with their games WildChordsGuitarBots, and guitar tuner app GuitarTuna. We were talking to their CEO Christoph Thür on how they organize their development process.

Tell us about yourself. What does your company do and what is your role?
I am the co-founder and CEO of Ovelin. We are making learning to play the guitar fun and motivating with computer games. You can play our games with a real guitar on your laptop, and you do not need any kind of special guitar or special equipment. The microphone on your device listens to what you play and then the game gives you real-time feedback if you do well or not – just like a guitar teacher would. The game is packaged in a fun way, so it is easy to approach, simple and step-by-step – and if you do well, you unlock harder levels.

How big is your development team? And how is it organized?
We are eight people on the development side. We have a visual artist, a 3D artist, an audio signal-processing expert, the lead programmer, and two additional programmers – one of which works on the game side and the other one – on the server side. We also have one person who is making the game content – the exercises, the tutorial material and the music. And we have a musician.

The team is based in Helsinki, except the audio signal-processing and the music guys, who are based in Tampere. They are coming here every week for one or two days, and then we have the whole team together.

Can you tell us about the development process?
For much of the time we have had two-weeks sprints. We plan the work almost with everyone individually – the developers, the visual artists and the management side. Then we would work in two week sprints, after which we would have a demo day, and the retrospective – and then plan the next sprint based on that.

For the last two months, however, we have stopped doing the sprints. We still have the retrospective, but instead of the sprints, we decided to use a priority document – that had to be alive and include all bigger features or tasks, with a person responsible for each. The development is then being done according to priorities – for example, if you have something that you are responsible for, but someone is coming and asking you to make visuals, and their item is higher in priority, then you have to actually help them on their request first before you finish your own work. So our process in a way is more similar to Kanban than Scrum now.

Do you have regular meetings for the development team?
We have one big office for everyone and we have 10am stand-up meetings, where we quickly go through everyone’s two most important things from yesterday and two most important things for today. Then, as I said, we have the retrospectives and the demo day every two weeks. Once in a while, when we meet major milestones, such as beta release or the full release, we agree on a feature freeze and put certain more flexible targets. We agree on things, and then about halfway through we see are we on track, because very often we realize that many things had come up that we did not plan, and a few things had gone away that we did plan, and that seems to work better for us.

Do you plan any changes to your process in the future?
It is hard to say, but we are trying to go more into the lean startup methodology. We are fairly happy with the priority document, but we would like to have a bit more determined task acceptance or approval criteria. Right now, it is often planned by the people themselves, or in certain cases by me, and we would like to have a bit more emphasis on the metric side – by looking at the data and A/B testing. That is one of the major updates we would like to bring to our process, now that we have the users and we can track what they are doing.

What other challenges do you have when it comes to development?
For us it is a bit difficult, because we do not have a product owner in the company. The product owner is basically me, but I do not want to be the only one, so we try to keep it open to the whole team. But often we end up with these overarching discussions – and it would be nice to have another product owner who is different than me.

Do you have any advice for other start-ups and their CTOs?
I think it is really good to take time, design, and go through the plan with the team. There is a big temptation to just say let’s work, so we do not waste time on planning, but very soon it starts costing much more. I also think it is good to learn what other companies are doing, but right now we have a bit unique game process case, so not everything that works for others would actually work for us. You have to learn from others – but you have also remember to actually think through it yourself, whether it makes sense for your specific case or not.

- Interview and Text by Dalia Lasaite, EyleanBoard

Ovelin launches GuitarBots at Slush12!

Ovelin ltd. announced in Slush12, Helsinki (21st November 2012) the release of their second title GuitarBots, an innovative guitar learning game played online with any real guitar – acoustic or electric. GuitarBots takes the concept of gamified guitar learning introduced in the company’s previous title WildChords to a whole new level, offering challenges both for the beginner and more advanced guitarists.

GuitarBots takes the player on an intergalactic quest of guitar mastery. To save an oncoming space concert, the player has to learn basic guitar skills. In order to advance in the game, the player has to unlock new songs and practice areas by playing songs correctly with a band. This game-like progression makes it fun and motivating to develop real guitar skills.

Read the full press release on MynewsDesk

Short info on GuitarBots

Where do GuitarBots songs come from?

Inspiration is a curious thing.

The creative process is somewhat impossible without any inspiration in the air. But you don’t really know what you get – in your greatest sensational peak of inspiration you might produce a lot of garbage, whereas seemingly uninspired states can lead to the finest stuff you’ve done.

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Sources of inspiration are everywhere, it’s really up to you to transform them into art, or anything you want. I’ve always admired people with this child-like enthusiasm about all sorts of things and tried to push aside unnecessary cynicism – the world is a wondrous place, after all! You can make a rhythm out of construction noise you hear, or come up with a melody inspired by the view from your office window…

When creating music for Ovelin, we first specify a need for an exercise with Joaquin, our music learning maestro. We come up with a rough tempo estimate for the lesson, which can then be turned into punk, reggae, electro or whatever feels good. I’ve also set myself a challenge to do ALL styles of music, whether we use them or not.

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I’m not a nit-picker when it comes to authenticity (and I apologise to those who are), but I like to raise my hat for the music styles that have evolved on this planet. The song Misirlou was a funny example – we had to slow it down quite a bit for our purposes, so the original surf-twist style wasn’t ideal anymore. Then we tried an Indian bhangra version, which just wouldn’t sit well with our comping patterns. Finally we turned it into a cumbia! Recreating Western classical music favourites in various modern styles (Hip-hop-Bach or Doom metal -Tsaikovsky) is one of our favourite hobbies as well.

Familiar songs and melodies are sometimes preferred, because that’s what the people want to learn to play, of course. However, many times we have to come up with our own songs for specific needs where known songs don’t exist or are way too difficult for the player.

When a composition is needed, I mostly just fool around on the keyboard (or maybe a harmonica, saxophone, tin whistle or whatever) in the given chord/melody context until I stumble onto something catchy, and start to forge it into a song. I seek for nice sounds and instruments and start to sketch a form and an arrangement in Logic (the audio software). Chords are often limited to a few, which sets a nice challenge – how to make a nice song out of just C and Am, or playing with just open strings.Melody can’t be too difficult either. These limitations have brought me back to the good ol’ basics of music, and I’m truly grateful of that.

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As an artist outside of Ovelin, I mostly play and compose in a more eclectic, jazz/prog-influenced setting, and it’s been nice having to be pulled down from the skies for some meat ‘n’ potatoes. Although it feels like my own material gets even more difficult since I use so much of my “pop” storage with Ovelin :)

As a composer, my motto is “don’t take yourself nor music too seriously”. I wouldn’t necessarily even call myself a “composer”, I just like to fool around, make songs and have fun with music. I try to produce the music in our games in a groovy way that suits and often pays homage to the pioneers of the style of music at hand, while trying to be a bit original in some spots as well.

The grooviness is maybe the only thing that is common between the huge variety of songs, apart from maybe some of my composition/arrangement/producing manouvres that I’m unable to point out myself.

If you notice any, please point ‘em out to me, I’m curious to find out!

- Markus

Making game controllers for guitar learning

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Ever stop to wonder, how game controllers come to life? How that simple , yet internally quite complex interface that enables your enjoyable gaming experience comes to be?

In the context of Ovelin games (WildChords and GuitarBots), any guitar can be used as a game controller. On this note, we thought we’d take a look at how real guitars are built.

 

Quest for quality guitar game controllers : Liikanen Guitars, Helsinki

Our adventure for quality game controllers lead us to a guitar workshop of Liikanen Guitars, a Finnish brand known for acoustic guitars with high build quality and good price/quality ratio. We’ve been using their Kantare guitars for demoing our games, and been quite pleased about the performance. Kantare is a more affordable series from Liikanen, retaining the innovative design features and quality, but at a more affordable price level.

The workshop of Liikanen is located in Herttoniemi area in Helsinki. The several hundread square workshop features a showroom, an office and an extensive workshop area for the differen phases of guitar-crafting magic. The premises let about a serene, chipping sounds of precise woodcraft, damped by material stock and shelves ripe with guitar bodies in different stages of completion. A multitude of tools, materials and gimmicks with no obvious purpose to the layman are spread around the working tables. The employees seem absorbed with their handiwork – concentration of a master craftsman.

What really makes a quality instrument?

We’re given a tour to the heart of this question by the maestro himself, Kauko Liikanen. With over 30 years of guitar building experience, Kauko introduces to us the intricacies of sound resonation and the factors affecting it in guitar construction. While it’s somewhat intuitive that the material choices and model have their effect, it seems that also varnish and thickness of the contstruction are important features in the resonation features of the instrument.

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The Maestro himself, Kauko Liikanen

The unique aspect in Liikanen guitars, later applied also the manufactured Kantere range is ”Lens Resonance System®” (LRS), invented by Liikanen and Uwe Florath in Finland. The LRS is a new soundboard construction without additional bracing that gives the instrument a much cleaner, sustained and powerful sound.

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The digital and analogue also met on the tour – Our signal processing expert Anssi and Kauko Liikanen discussing instrument construction.

We’re also introduced to the way resonance aspects of guitars can be tested. By using a resonator (essentially an oscillator), the resonance can be visualized by spreading light particles (seeds in this case) on the chassis and letting the patterns form on the resonance frequencies.

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Kantare guitar resonance testing setup

Sales talk is one thing – hearing the difference yourself is a different matter. One of the office maestros at Kantare also put the different guitars in the showroom to the test. Truly, the quality and design really does come across when you experience it first hand – a quality instrument really makes your Bach classics, Nothing Else Matters and Sweet Child’o’Mine  stand out more.

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Kantare showroom – Bach with a quality guitar really stands out

Joaquin thought  that Kantare axes handle the infamous difficult song in GuitarBots pretty nicely :)

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Maestro Liikanen and the Ovelin Team

Keep on Jamming,

- Mika

Behind the scenes – music recognition for gaming

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How hard is it to write down music just by hearing it being played? If you whistle a short melody to a random listener, most people will be able to reproduce it by humming or whistling it back more or less accurately.  Such a task can be called “monophonic” music recognition since there is only one note sounding at each time.  The situation gets quite different when you play a polyphonic three- or four-note chord on the piano and ask someone to hum the different (component) notes. People without a trained musical ear will usually not able to do that, but instead perceive the chord as a coherent whole with its global harmony and timbre.

In our games (WildChords and Guitarbots (currently in Beta) ), we need to recognize the component notes of guitar chords from the microphone signal in order to figure out what the user played at each time.  What is so easy for the human to conceive presents a rather interesting computational challenge:

You see, Computers are very good at generating stuff: for example, 3D graphics or music synthesis are highly developed. They are, however, much less competent in analyzing real world information: machine vision (analyzing photographs) and music transcription (audio-to-score conversion) are much less mature fields.  In order to understand sensory information from the real world, one has to deal with all the noise, ambiguities and surprises of the reality.

What exactly are the challenges in computational recognition of guitar playing?

First of all, Every guitar sounds a bit different, depending on its materials and construction, whether it has nylon or steel strings, whether the guitar is acoustic or electric, and so forth.

Secondly, not everyone plays in a quiet room: demoing the game at a trade fair for example requires noise robustness (the ability of the recognition solution to work with background noise).  And on top of the noise, the audio playback of the game itself reverberates all over the room, trying to mask the user’s playing.

Finally, hearing out the notes in music requires a sufficiently long segment of the input audio. In the context of games, this conflicts with the idea that analysis should be performed within short successive segments in order to provide accurate feedback on the timing of the played notes.

So which one is better music recognizer, a human listener or a computer?  It is fair to say that a well-trained human musician outperforms any computational algorithm in accuracy andflexibility. Those who have tried the Siri speech interface know that the state of the art of speech recognition is still less accurate than human speech recognition, despite the 50+ years of research and development in that area.  Same goes with music recognition.  But computers have their edge too:they never get tired at listening.

- Anssi / Ovelin

Events, upcoming titles and sharks with laser beams

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Events are fun. Events with startups and fantastic people are even more fun. Add to the mix new, upcoming titles and the opportunity of showing the labor of love to the crowds for the first time and we’re talking about a whole new level of mega-awesomeness!

 

This week has been mostly about events. We have multitasked and spread our wings on the scene atArctic15 in Finland (the pic above), in Web summit (Dublin, Chris) and in Spielmesse (Essen, Chris).

Our thing in the events this time around was to give people a sneak-peek on our upcoming, space and robots-flavored title (GuitarBots.com, now in beta). It’s going to be about taking Guitar learning to a next level along with copious amounts of flash, bang and bubble gum – and hey, who doesn’t love robots and the outer space?

It’s interesting to see how people experience your in-development product. Very simple queues and remarks about the slightest details can be essential for keeping that learning motivation live and kicking. Also, early feedback from the field and in very diverse environmental settings really points out the different use cases and use behaviors that elude your attention when testing things at the office or on a specific test session.

Perhaps the most memorable  feedback emerged on a very surprising note on our previous guitar-learning title, WildChords. This awesome kid with an interest in guitar (and a history with violin) just picked up the guitar and was strumming away in just seconds after starting. And he wouldn’t let go of it – he was so excited about the basic stuff! Can you get any better feedback than that?

- Mika

How do you find out if a learning game works?

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Now that would be a topic for a long-time study involving laboratory tests with multiple subjects and lots of fancy scientific terms. While it is a research I would definitely be interested in being part of, I decided to start with a quicker and not so heavy approach.

 

So what does it mean if a learning game works? From a teacher’s perspective it means that the game communicates with the player and makes the experience fun and motivating, even captivating. After all, learning tends to happen when you have fun doing something, and you return to doing it often. That’s one reason why games have so much potential when it comes to teaching skills.

Communication in teaching is more than just speaking the same language. According to a common categorization, there are three different learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning. A good teacher knows how to address all three.

Games are good at stimulating many of our senses at the same time, but the challenge is that a game tutorial should hit the target on the first try, whereas a teacher can try different approaches and personalize the message for each type of learner.

So, to start with my research, instead of putting on my mad-scientist-outfit and attaching sensors and cables to anyone, I grab my guitar and iPad and start scanning the surroundings of our office in Helsinki for possible victims. My mission: to find out if people understand the game and what their first experience is like.

First, I head down to the university. I start by strumming some friendly chord progressions in the happy key of E, smiling to strangers and inviting them to play with me. I quickly realize that this might not be the right approach, since all I get is weird looks. On the other hand, maybe law students (judging from the way they dress, and answer “yes” to the nearby market researchers question “are you a law student”) just aren’t the kind of people who would spontaneously play the guitar in public.

Next I head to the brand new Music Centre. Here, if anywhere, I should find people who are interested in learning to play. Success! I intercept an opera singer and fool him into trying the game. He agrees, but when I take the guitar out of the bag, he hesitates and asks: “What, do I have to play a REAL guitar? Here?”. So, we find a place in the second floor where nobody sees or hears us. “This is quite addictive” he says, when playing the first exercises. I can’t help smiling. Later I get similar feedback from a pianist, a cellist and a guitarist. They seem to understand the tutorials and enjoy the game. I also meet four high school students who dedicate a whole hour of their time to playing the game with me.

Next day I go to a youth center to try the game with a slightly more demanding group: teenagers. It’s usually not easy to get verbal feedback from teenagers, but when you do, it’s pretty honest, like “this sucks”. Luckily, nobody says that, so I tend to think they rather like playing it. It’s also quite rewarding to see people who’ve never played guitar before grab it and play a song from beginning to end.

I also take the game to a classroom and a young guitar students group session, where I meet possibly the brightest kid I’ve ever known. He’s like 8 years old, but has so great comments and sharp observations that I would hire him to Ovelin right away if he wasn’t a minor.

All in all this was really just the beginning, but it already taught me a lot and helped me believe we’re going in the right direction. Can’t wait to have more of these sessions and interesting conversations. If you’re a teacher and would be interested in testing the game with your students, don’t hesitate to contact us through our webpage (www.ovelin.com)

All the best,

— Joaquin