We love our music apps, and the smartphones that made it commonplace to carry around advanced, diverse music functionality, rather than relying on a "dumb" iPod or waiting until you get back to your computer to try the cool stuff. However, phones are getting in the way of apps.
Case in point: You're listening to music over your Sonos system, maybe while making pancakes on a lazy Sunday morning. Maybe you're listening to this. Then, lo-and-behold, something horrible starts playing — that one Billy Joel song you can't stand, from an internet radio station, or maybe it's a thrash metal song from your computer's MP3 collection. Wherever it's coming from, you need to Make. It. Stop. Now. With each passing second, your pancake reverie erodes.
If you use music apps, you know the following routine (we're not picking on Sonos here — the same would be true with other apps, and in fact Sonos offers a dedicated hardware remote — but we want to keep our pancake-making scenario, and Sonos works great for that):
- Pick up your phone.
- Turn it on.
- Type in the security code (unless you're the carefree type who doesn't care if evil phone thieves read your email and do who knows what else).
- A) Swipe the screen until the app shows up; or B) search for the app, if you have lots of apps installed and don't know where each one lives.
- Run the app, probably waiting a few seconds to for it to fire up. Maybe you have to sign in too.
- Click the Down arrow or the Skip button.
- Collect the shards of your shattered pancake reverie.
This is not cool. On grandpa's CD player, skipping a song took about a second, and involved pressing exactly one button on a remote control. You call this progress?
Well, it is progress in a sense, because the whole point is that we now have instant access to way more music than a CD (or an iPod, for that matter) could ever hold. But as a physical interface between human and music, the smartphone might actually be considered a big step back, because they're designed to do everything. If you need tweezers, sometimes tweezers are better than a Swiss Army Knife.
Luckily, smart people are working on this problem — if not directly, than in such a way that our apps should be freed from our smartphones, computers and tablets within, I don't know, the next decade. Check it out — it might not be too much longer until you can use a wide variety of music apps without facing that oh-so-familiar accusation: "You're always staring at that #(&$*&#; phone!"
In the early days of Evolver.fm, we were mightily impressed by these big love/hate buttons. Instead of firing up an app or walking over to a computer, you march over to the wall and slap the button when you want something to happen:
The clever folks at "physical-digital interactive agency" Breakfast New York are onto something, although they told us they had no plans to bring these buttons to market.
You know what would be great? A bunch of buttons on the wall of any or every room — maybe near the lightswitch, or maybe as just rechargeable, modular tiles that you can slap on wherever you want. Maybe Velcro could be involved, and maybe these buttons could be assigned any function, musical or otherwise, and you could draw little icons on them. All I know is that walking over and pressing buttons for up volume, down volume, skip, like, unlike and share would be better than futzing around with my phone, which I was probably using for something else at the time anyway, or which I don't need another reason to look at. And of course you could get a duplicate remote control for those buttons, just like grandpa used to have.
The "internet of things", or "web.3.0" as some people call it, should have great implications for music apps, music fans, and pancake party people alike, and buttons like that should be a part of it. But there are other indications that the smartphone might get out of our way too. CNET confirmed about an hour ago that Google Glass will go on sale — like, to actual people who don't work at Google or write about technology — within the 2013 calendar year, and that it will cost "under $US1500".
It's not easy to see Google Glass's potential for controlling music apps, offering visual navigation possibilities that Siri can only dream of, and the price is certain to drop with time, as usually happens.
Then there's all the crazy gesture stuff, and not just on game consoles. Following a strong appearance at Music Hack Day SF earlier this month, we're becoming a little bit obsessed with the Leap Motion Controller, a little box that lets you do stuff like navigate Spotify by waving your hand in the air, and can even form the basis of app-derived musical instruments (a sort of evolution of this concept).
People are also building gesture-based laptop interfaces that bounce ultrasound waves off of your hands and pick them up via microphone:
Other people still are inventing dummy heads and putting binaural microphones in them to record 360-degree music that you can control with your face for crying out loud. On the other end of the equation are these buttons, sensors and augmented reality glasses that can detect a wider range of user controls than today's smartphones can, even with their touchscreens, microphones, accelerometers and (scarce) buttons.
In other words: So long, smartphones, and thanks for all the apps.*
*The author is exaggerating, because these technologies are bleeding-edge, and nobody thinks we will stop using smartphones entirely, but hopefully you get his point: The phones will start getting out of our way while we're trying to make pancakes.
Evolver.fm observes, tracks and analyses the music apps scene, with the belief that it's crucial to how humans experience music, and how that experience is evolving.