by Marcus Martinez
I would like to first consider the framework that could be implied by device pairing, extension of battery life, device mirroring and voice command. All of which may present a new form factor of the hand held device. In other words, liberating the form factor of the phone from the scale of ‘hand to face’ to the scale that is appropriate for long term resilience.
Pairing Sound and Voice
Could the mass customization model create a momentous change? In spite of the myriad of bluetooth single ear headsets, the market for big, vibrant, multicolor, designer headphones could not be stronger. Looking back at the recent 2012 Olympics, with many on the US swim team with multi colored Beats headphones, and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt partnering with SOUL electronics for a line of headphones, we could be convinced that it is simply access to customization will prevail over the mostly black plastic bodies of bluetooth headsets. Perhaps the two demographics don’t mix (business types and trend hunters) or have similar demands. The prevalence of the smart phone has merged uses as a communication device, video, music, reader and gaming platform which creates new demands for sound and interaction.
The integrated listening and interaction experience has received recent attention from the kickstarter endeavor ‘Elroy’, launched by Timbuk2 founder Rob Honeycutt. The Elroy, namesake of the Jetsons, is an attempt to solve 3 problems: wire management, answering/ending calls, and headset storage. Honeycutt’s team decouples the headset from the phone to the bluetooth Elroy which can clip to a variety of options like a collar or inside jacket pocket. The headphones connect to the bluetooth device that bundles a mic, touch interface, their own ‘activated’ earbuds with shorter cord into a wearable customizable package at the scale of a lighter. While you could use their activated earbuds, there may be a greater intention to connect with the listening experience of your choice like the Beats (or Bose, Soul, Sennheiser etc) headphones for the preferred sound quality in the custom package, and use the mic of the Elroy for voice command to dial, answer calls, read and compose text. Though some compare bluetooth devices like the Sony MW500 which feels circa 90’s discman, with your choice of black or black and a flourish of push buttons; the Elroy has fully customizable touch plates which ride the wave of recent custom headphones, cases, and ringtones, that range from professional, super graphic, to the ‘cat lady’ special.
Miniaturizing and Mirroring
Mirroring devices like the recently launched Pebble has interesting potential. Yet, the E-ink display’s 7 day charge capacity is overlooked when the interaction with the Pebble revisits a button based menu that are less intuitive than the phone it is mirroring.
Shortly after the 6th generation i-pod nano hit the shelves a number of 3rd party accessory developers integrated the square form factor (1.48 by 1.61 inches) into a watch band ‘case’. Perhaps Apple identified the significance of this as a potential offering and suppressed or delayed this progression by rendering the 7th generation i-pod nano derivative of the 5th generation bar design.
Could the rumored ‘i-phone watch’ and recently launched ‘pebble watch’ refresh our association with these devices? From a design perspective, is migrating the phone from ‘hand held’ to watch a residual response (repurposing of the old) or is it a step toward an immersive experience? Finally, what could this mean to manufacturers, and behaviors?
One perspective might be that the iPhone watch is a step too far; forcing an unnecessary miniaturization of parts, managing heat and battery technology in what might be a bulky package. The Pebble though is a step in the right direction. If these devices would evolve to a simplified touch interface that is familiar to the native phone interface (android, iOS, windows etc) it supports with only the hardware necessary to mirror then it could offer a new design model. How great would it be if it was kinetically charged?
On to the Future
If a watch interface could bridge the gap between the otherwise battery draining routine of turning on the screen for checking email, text, time and calendars. And if we could accept a future of an increasingly sophisticated voice command and recognition software, then accessories like the Elroy could further serve to reconfigure the phone. Together they could be liberate the scale of a handheld device to a remote processors or a reader. In other words, the phone could resemble a small external hard drive that stays in your pocket, purse or backpack that tethers a variety of customizable accessories. The days of a pressing a screen, processor, battery and your choiice of case against your face will be traded with just saying ‘hello’
Slap both together! Is that it?
Image: US Patent Office/Apple
What goes under the radar the is not only the force of the accessory market to influence product development, rather how certain motifs persist. The final example is made possible by Apple’s recent patent application of what appears to take reference of our 80’s slap bracelet. In short, the ‘slap bracelet’ could maintain shape either conforming to a wrist or made flat. In the case of a phone, it could conform to wrists, bag straps, bike handles, lamps, doorhandles, and mugs to name a few. Could this be a ‘check mate’ to accessory makers?
While the ‘slap phone’ has promise, designer Judicael Cornu has designed the ‘bone conduction headphone’. As seen above, one of many iterations that Cornu has designed uses the structure of the body to amplify audible sound waves. (discovered on t-future.com )
There Has To Be Something Less
The very success of an accessory market is less an indication that technology needs to be personalized, rather that prevailing devices have declared an indifference to how we use them. Furthermore, the demand for refined ‘objects to behold’ perpetuates a distinct set of predictable habits and problems that entire markets would claim to ‘customize’ away. Unfortunately, moving towards more integrated and immersive technology would also mean that it would blend away, and be unidentifiable…then how would companies set themselves apart? …Better hardware, connectivity, fluent across platforms, languages, knows your habits?
My broad speculation is that many devices are built for obsolescence. Fatigue and fragility of materials, battery limitations, and limited firmware updates play a role in how long we own a device. Yet, more often, we look for new offerings and its promise to be even more seamless then the rest before these have met. To offer a new variety of integrated devices could usher in a new wave of resilient technologies, devices that would be less noticeable, last longer and therefore be more sustainable in material and manufacturing practices. Would anyone be in a hurry to buy what we don’t see? Is consumer demand getting in the way of a seamless future?