Yesterday, Sega revealed its Game Gear Micro throwback console and if you think putting just four retro games inside a tiny handheld with an even tinier screen was strange, the company has some even weirder gadgets in its back catalog, including a meticulously detailed miniature grand piano that plays all by itself.
As Mat Taylor of YouTube’s Techmoan explains, the Sega Grand Pianist debuted in 2007 and although Sega filed the necessary trademarks for a release in the United States, the replica, created by Sega’s toy division, never saw a release outside of Japan. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the tiny piano’s $400 price tag, but to its credit, Sega packed a surprising amount of features and functionality into this miniaturized instrument.
They’re not made of ivory, but the Grand Pianist’s 88 plastic keys all work, although the metal strings inside the piano are just for show; this is essentially a miniature electronic synthesizer. Users can attempt to plink out a tune using a toothpick or an especially thin finger but manually playing a song on the Grand Pianist seems like a feature that few would actually have taken advantage of.
The replica’s biggest selling point is its self-playing functionality, where a collection of built-in songs across six different genres (including classical, Japanese, and even western) could be played, with the appropriate keys appearing to be pressed by an invisible pianist thanks to actuators hidden inside the piano’s body.
The built-in collection of songs could be expanded through add-on cartridges, which Taylor discovered were really just 2GB SD memory cards filled with files. As a result, users could import their own tunes by using PC software to convert MIDI files into the FEM format the Grand Pianist could load. The only issue was that more complicated polyphonic pieces didn’t sound so great when played through the tiny piano because the movements of the keys and the hidden actuators would get quite noisy when too many were being triggered at the same time.
The self-playing keys could be disabled altogether for those who just wanted to use the Grand Pianist as a speaker, although given it was released over a decade before wifi and Bluetooth became common, users would have to plug an audio cable into the tiny piano to pipe music through its equally tiny speaker. It’s hard to wonder who Sega was targeting the Grand Pianist at, exactly. At $400 it made for a very expensive toy, but the sound quality would appall anyone looking for a way to truly enjoy classical music on a piano. It was, without a doubt, much cheaper than a real grand piano, but learning to tickle the ivories on this would be all but impossible.