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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Turn your iPhone into an ocarina.

I recently installed an unusual application on my iPhone: Ocarina. This program turns your iPhone into a four-hole ocarina, with the holes outlined on the iPhone’s touch-sensitive screen. But the really cool thing is that you actually blow into your iPhone to simulate blowing into the ocarina! Try it: it really works!

Many of my students agree that this is really cool, although some adults think that it’s a waste of time. I don’t really understand their point of view, since they are likely to spend their time on useless things like watching football games, but anyway....

The reason that I had to demo this product for my precalculus class is that we have just finished studying the use of trigonometric and exponential functions to model musical sounds, and one of the issues that arose is what the dependent variable represents when graphing an oscilloscopic rendering of a tone. Sure, if Middle C is 262 Hz, we notice that the frequency is 262 cycles per second since the period of the independent variable is 1/262 of a second. But what does the y-axis represent? We say pressure, and we may measure it in pascals or mV, but what does this have to do with the loudness of a sign? The direct analog construction of the iPhone ocarina application — with no intermediate abstractions of digital software — provides a clear understanding of this phenomenon, since the user’s breath blowing into the iPhone moves the membrane of the microphone, illustrating pressure in a literal way.

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