THE MAGIC MAN AND HIS SONGWAND

A brand new technological tool for learning and entertainment will soon be making its debut from a Santa Barbara company called Interactive Audio.

Dan Kimball, founder of the company, got the idea for his new product, the SongWand, when he was out bird watching.

As a kid growing up in Minnesota, Kimball was first introduced to bird watching when his high school physics teacher took him out to help with the annual Audubon bird count, a national contest among counties. (With its diverse terrain, Santa Barbara always ranks in the top five in the U.S.)

The birds’ “colorful plumage, extraordinary sounds, and the freedom of flight” inspired Kimball so much that even Minnesota’s 20-below-zero winter weather did not discourage him from finding and identifying the many species.

As Kimball got more serious about bird watching, he bought a field guide to help him recognize the birds. In his field guide were pictures called sonograms that displayed musical notes. The notes were supposed to represent what the bird’s song sounded like.

“I couldn’t read [the sonograms],” Kimball says, “and when I grew up and became a technologist, I realized I could create” a wand to read a barcode embedded in the text that could bring forth the bird’s song.

With his idea in mind, Kimball went to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, which holds the world’s largest collection of birdsongs, and he participated in a joint venture with the university to collect bird songs that he needed.

Interactive Audio then put together a field guide to birds that will be available next summer. Christian Maurer, co-founder of Layout Solutions, a design company that also lays out Montecito Journal and its sister paper Santa Ynez Valley Journal, helped develop the field guide’s graphics.

With Kimball’s field guide, bird watchers will be able to touch the bird’s picture with the wireless wand and hear its song through a pair of small speakers that come in a petite pack that can be worn around the neck. The pack also holds a CD player.

The field guide identifies 267 species of eastern and 533 species of western birds.

As a bird watcher, “just seeing the bird is only fifty percent of your job,” says Nitin Solanki, senior software engineer at Interactive Audio. “In the wild, you may not necessarily not see the bird” and often need to identify it on its song alone.

The wand can give instructions on how to identify the bird as well as information about the region in which the bird lives.

The field guide will include “an interactive learning system that can ask you a question and you can respond,” says Kimball.

For example, if bird watchers want to test their knowledge on a specific species of bird, they can select certain features in the guide book that will play the bird’s song and they can guess what kind of bird it is by using the wand to choose an answer.

This “revolution in pen-top computing,” as Kimball calls it, is made possible by new printing technology that allows paper to be printed with a barcode that is hidden under the image of the bird.

“The paper is like a computer screen,” says Kimball, adding that instead of clicking on items with a computer mouse, bird watchers will use the SongWand to scan the item they want.

When the wand reads the barcode, it wirelessly communicates with the CD player and instructs it to bring forth the requested sound. The CD player has a powerful microcontroller that controls all of the SongWand’s features.

SongWand “adds interaction to media, which is usually done passively,” says Solanki.

The SongWand will cost around $150 and will be available for purchase at nature product stores and on the Internet at www.songwand.com.

Those visiting the website can listen to a few sample bird songs and watch a promotional video on the SongWand, and read in depth about its many features.

Kimball adds that Interactive Audio “should not be pigeon-holed – we’re not a bird watching company only. Any book can become interactive.”

In fact, Interactive Audio has already worked with Encyclopedia Britannica to create an interactive English language learning program, a program to learn French, and is in the process of creating interactive lessons in science, history and math for children in which they can use the wand to quiz their knowledge and listen to lessons at the same time that they are reading them.

One such product is a poster with information about the Civil War. Pictures of characters from the war, such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, are on the poster. One can use the wand to listen to characters discuss certain Civil War topics, such as what occurred on specific dates, or ask characters to talk to each other.

“Products such as children’s books that produce sound have a very limited set of features,” says Solanki. “Interactive Audio products are greatly versatile in terms of their applications, features and functionality.”

Interactive Audio has also created a map of the United States that is printed with tiny encoded dots on it. The wand for this map has a tiny camera on it that “sees” the dots, which will tell the wand what state is being observed. In turn, the information will be sent to the CD player and back to the viewer through the speakers.

“When you combine the audio and visual channels [of your brain], you increase comprehension,” says Kimball. “There is a kinesthetic quality that doesn’t exist with computers.”

In about a year there will also be magazines available in which readers can use this technology to select items to purchase out of the pages.

“I want to feel satisfied that customers have a powerful new learning environment,” Kimball says. “It’s all about generating new ways for exploring the world – this is the way [learning] should be.”