The designer who thinks music streaming should be a conversation

March 4, 2014
Obsession
Design
March 4, 2014

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Duncan Lamb, founder of Aether.(Aether)

Duncan Lamb, a product designer formerly of Nokia and Skype, thinks that our connected devices are far too app-happy. Today he launches Aether Things, a San Francisco-based company that he says will integrate hardware and software to make things that are simpler—and more beautiful—than other contenders in the expanding Internet of Things.

The company’s first product, Cone, is a music speaker that acts as a sort of super-charged Pandora station, curating your music, podcasts, and radio and learning your listening habits. The exact source of that audio content is still undisclosed: While Lamb wants the device to be platform agnostic, pulling its tracks from any music streaming service you subscribe to, he’s still in talks with popular platforms.

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Give it a whirl.(Aether)

Though the device lacks any kind of screen, it works on its own. Users only need the accompanying app if they want to go looking for information on a track they hear. Otherwise, using the personal DJ is as easy as twisting the face of the speaker. A short turn changes songs, a spin breaks into a different kind of music, and voice recognition helps you make specific requests.

Cone will be available for $399 this spring or summer. We sat down with Lamb to discuss Cone, and what else Aether has in store.

Quartz: You were a creative director for Nokia, where you led the design of new swipe-based interfaces, and before that you were head of product design at Skype. So what brought you into the Internet of Things?

Lamb: At both Nokia and Skype, my real job as a designer was figuring out how to make the conversation between people and things better. I saw a lot of need for that in connected devices.

When you own a bunch of these things—and you have to, because single computers have exploded into dozens of individual products—it’s like running a Dickensian orphanage. I found myself calendaring time to set up and fix devices for my family. I wanted to make the physical forms of these objects simpler, so you wouldn’t have to care about them so much. Aether will make beautiful, thinking things. We’ll make these objects more humane.

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The forthcoming white model is clearly meant to blend in with your Apple devices.(Aether)

Quartz: Why start with streaming music, when most people just do that with their phone or computer anyway?

Lamb: I’m very informed by the Nordic approach to design, which is about making more humble, purpose-driven products. It’s not about whiz-bang innovation. It’s finding those problems that are like tiny grains of sand in your life, and making them rub a little less, making them more gentle.

I was watching my friends and family pick music at home, and I found the whole concept of that technology unbelievably compelling. I mean, you ask for Frank Sinatra, and there he is. But the bitter irony is that while we have access to 20 million or some tracks, people still find themselves staying in one puddle of familiar music. So we’re taking this very universal thought, which is, “I sure would like some non-silence right about now,” and giving you a product that can learn what you want, and become truly yours.

Quartz: Why should I let my speaker tell me what to listen to?

Lamb: Having all that choice is great until it’s time to make a decision. People don’t like having too much choice. That’s why if you have the means, you pay a another human to pick things for you—a DJ for your party, or a personal trainer for your workout.

A computer can make a lot of these decisions for you, but it can only suggest. It’s never going to be perfect. That’s why it’s so important to design the device in a graceful way. Cone isn’t saying “you will listen to this.” It’s having a conversation with you and saying, “how about this?” That way you have a choice, but you also have some help. Because it all comes in this single device, it feels very elemental. But there’s a lot of power behind it.

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The turning gesture essentially lets the speaker function as its own remote control.(Aether)

Quartz: How do you see Aether as standing out from other internet-connected devices, in Cone and in your future products?

Lamb: There are a couple things. First of all, consumer tech companies lately seem to expect everyone to be excited about the tech itself. I don’t think people want that, I think most of us want simple magic. Because when tech companies focus on how great the wow-factor of the new tech is, they tend to also pass along the complexity. I mean, TVs used to have two knobs. As TV manufacturers and cable companies expanded our choices, they also increased the complexity. Now you’ve got three to five remotes for the thing, and that’s just an awful lot of buttons. None of us want that. So we’re setting out to make products where a vague output—in the Cone’s case, reaching out and turning the face of the speaker in a circle—translates into a specific output. The gestures are simple, even if the technology isn’t.

I also saw a lot of companies making things with simple designs and then saying, “put that functionality in the app, the app can do it.” So if the device itself is simple, like a wristband without a screen, then you have this phone as its master, and the device is the slave. But it’s going to be the device on your body, or on the kitchen counter. So we wanted to make the interface with the device high-level enough that you’d hardly ever need to pull your phone out.

Quartz: Just how well will these connected devices get to know you?

Lamb: It’s not cheap, so it better be good, right? From the moment you unbox it, this device is going to get to know you pretty quickly. It’s going to know right away that the right answer to “what should I listen to?” isn’t usually going to be the number one song on your streaming service. If you’re sitting around at lunch and ask it for Hungarian polka music, it’s going to say, okay, so it’s lunchtime in New York and we’re sitting in the home office, and polka is the thing. It’s going to remember that, and offer you some more the next time you’re in that office at lunch. If you never sit through another polka song again, it’ll figure that out too. And it knows that your office music isn’t the same as your poolside music, whether that happens to be polka or OneRepublic.

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