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Startup PianoArc creates 360-degree keyboards for ‘extreme performance’

As he stepped onstage alongside Lady Gaga, and slipped into the “Brockettship,” the keyboardist didn’t know what to expect.

Brockett Parsons had only just received the custom-made, 360-degree instrument, built by Boston-based PianoArc, a few days before the concert at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in South Korea.

It was his first time performing live with the continuous keyboard, which circled him like the rings of Saturn. But once he felt the sheer power it produced, he knew it wouldn’t be his last.

“There’s a certain soul to having just one keyboard around you,” he said.

PianoArc is a recent graduate of the MassChallenge startup accelerator program in Boston’s Innovation District.

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As the company gets ready to leave the incubator space, where the founders spent the summer perfecting their latest keyboard, the company is fine-tuning its next move, with its sights set on expanding and settling on the North Shore.

“It’s definitely for people looking to stand out” while on stage, said Chuck Johnson, PianoArc’s cofounder. “We are looking at venues, performers, and enthusiasts and even design places where this could play a role.”

The company unofficially got its start in 2011, when Parsons decided to enhance his performance as he prepared for a tour with Lady Gaga.

After talking with a fellow musician, Parsons called Johnson, a friend since college, with the idea of constructing a circular keyboard.

“I was trying to figure out a way to make my keyboard rig really dope,” Parsons said.

The concept started off as a one-time challenge. Johnson got in touch with an industry friend, David Starkey, who is now the company’s chief technology officer, and asked him to rig the electronics for the Brockettship.

In four months, they put together the first unit, which eventually visited more than 30 countries over the course of two years during Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” tour in 2012, and “ArtPop” tour a year later.

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Johnson and the team realized the potential for the instrument by the reaction it got from the crowds.

Looking to expand, PianoArc applied to the accelerator program at MassChallenge earlier this year. The team spent the summer building the newest model, a lighter, flashier version of the Brockettship, called the “Brock360.”

The Brock360 looks like a UFO. Its 288 keys are surrounded by green, yellow, red, and blue LED lights that accentuate the performance. A wide cherry-red rim circles the black-and-white keys, which are made of wood.

For many musicians, playing gigs on stage requires the use of several keyboards to produce different sounds at the same time. Having a single, contained unit is like having three keyboards in one — not to mention the fact that it looks like something from “The Jetsons.”

“Yo-Yo Ma was one with his cello,” Starkey said. “This allows the player to become one with their instrument.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.