Streaming music services have already put millions of songs at our fingertips. Now they’ve embarked on a mission to spare you the task of sifting through all of it. Spotify’s Discover platform, for instance, makes suggestions based on what you’ve already listened to; earlier this year, Beats launched Beats Music, which touts “hand-crafted playlists.” That premise–that our music services can not only stock songs but get to know us and then curate them, too–is what the Aether Cone is all about. Designed by Duncan Lamb, formerly head of product design at Skype, the cone-shaped portable speaker is the first gadget to come out of Aether, his newly launched San Francisco-based company.
Late in 2011, Lamb reconnected with an old colleague from Skype, and they got to thinking about IBM’s Watson computer system, which had recently competed (and won) on Jeopardy. “How was it that, on the one hand, IBM’s Watson could play Jeopardy, and on the other, we were still telling our computers–that have keyboards, mice, drop-down menus–pixel for pixel, word for word, what we wanted [them] to do?” Lamb asks.
With Cone, Lamb set out to solve a very common but nascent problem: Having access to all the world’s music doesn’t always mean we can discover more of it. In fact, the experience of selecting tunes song by song, rather than album by album, likely means we’re playing tracks on repeat more than ever. “People just get stuck in a rut because they don’t have the time or motivation to find the perfect song for the moment,” Lamb tells Co.Design. To fix that, Cone’s software pays attention to what you listen to, and when, so that it can start autonomously supplying you with context-appropriate playlists.
To achieve that, Lamb developed an algorithm that uses sonic and category clues to choose the next song for any given mood. Here’s a hypothetical scenario for how Cone works, out of the box: “Let’s imagine the first turn of the dial starts playing industrial metal–I would just skip right over it. The next thing will be quite different, so one click further might be Mozart, or NPR, or Pharrell,” Lamb says. “If you turn the dial four clicks, and then you end up on Nina Simone, you let it play.” (In this way, Cone preserves some of the beauty of old-school radio: you might not really know what you’re in the mood for, until you get a sonic sampling and know you’ve hit the jackpot.) After Simone, the next song might be Ella Fitzgerald. Cone then remembers that all this happened on a Wednesday night around 9:00, and stashes that information for later. After awhile, when you come home on a weeknight, and turn the dial on, it will likely offer up something similar. But the next morning, it’ll still know that you’d rather to tune in to Radiolab.
In two major ways, Cone also channels the design DNA of the Nest Thermostat, the product that’s arguably setting the gold standard for automated home devices. First, Cone learns its owner’s habits and adjusts accordingly. Second, like the thermostat, Cone’s interface consists of one palm-sized dial–and that’s it.
Because simplicity drove Lamb’s design decisions, the Cone also responds to voice recognition, if a specific song is wanted. It also syncs to an app that can communicate to the listener what song is on, should they get curious. That sensibility even extends to the speaker’s packaging: There’s no glue in their cardboard boxes, so the shipping containers collapse easily for recycling. “As products become smart, and can do more, as a designer you have a choice,” Lamb says. “You either cover them with buttons, or put a touch screen on it and cover it with buttons. Or you have a really singular interaction and a device that thinks.”
The Aether cone will cost $399, and be available this summer.