It's a Saturday night and you're cooking dinner before some friends come over. You hit a button on the speaker in your kitchen and it starts playing Daft Punk. You didn't ask for Daft Punk, and the music isn't coming from your phone, computer, or any other device that's in your house; your speaker is connecting directly to a streaming music service over Wi-Fi. It picked Daft Punk because it knows you like them, and just so happen to have a habit of listening to them on Saturdays when you're in the kitchen.
Dedicated hardware for streaming music services
That's exactly the kind of moment Aether, a new startup comprised of former Nokia, Apple, and Google employees, is trying to make completely normal. Its new $399 Cone speaker, which launches this summer, is hardware for streaming music services. It connects to your home Wi-Fi and music service of choice (those haven't been announced just yet), but without the need for another device, and with some unusual controls. Think Sonos minus the remote controls, a Bluetooth speaker without the need for a paired device.
Cone's main interface is the speaker grill, which you just reach out and twist to control what's playing. Turn it slightly to the right, and it will play another track. Twist it to the left, and it will replay whatever you were listening to. Twist it a bit more and it plays something else entirely. You need a computer or mobile device to set it up out of the box, but after that it runs on its own.
The controls add a dash of chaos to listening
That big twist, the one that jumps whatever is playing to something else entirely, adds a dash of chaos — and gives the Cone an air of mystery, says Duncan Lamb, Aether's chief product officer. In the large, bright room in San Francisco where Lamb is showing me the Cone, he's just given the dial a hearty spin, and we go from an NPR podcast with the soothing voice of Terry Gross to a throbbing track by LCD Soundsystem.
"It's understanding it's morning in San Francisco, and it's a Monday. And last Monday I asked for this, and listened to this," Lamb says. "It's a really good example of computers figuring out what they think you mean," he adds, while turning up the volume from one of two buttons on the back of the unit. "It learns that I crank that, it's an endorsement of LCD Soundsystem."
Aether is using machine learning, and the listening history and ratings it gets from streaming music services, to develop knowledge about a person's tastes. The end result, the company hopes, is the option to just hit single button on the Cone and hear something good.
"I want some non-silence right now."
"Nobody's addressing the human problem of ‘I'm busy, I'm at home, life is happening all around me, and I want some non-silence right now,'" Lamb says. "I want to reach out and do something incredibly simple. That doesn't exist in the context of streaming music."
Lamb, who was formerly Skype's head of product design and a creative director at Nokia working on the N9's interface, says Aether visited more than a dozen homes to watch how people were using existing audio systems. "They'd created little hacks," he says, including connecting old, disused laptops to very nice Bluetooth speakers with a 3.5mm cable because they couldn't figure out how to pair them. "We were seeing people with really nice sound systems ... just gathering dust."
In that regard, the Cone is not meant to breathe new life into older hardware, like Google did with the Chromecast. And at $399, it's pricier than many small Bluetooth speakers. But it also does a lot more than your average Bluetooth speaker. Aether partnered with Nuance to add voice controls using a special center control that doubles as a big pause button: just hold your finger there for a few seconds, then say a song or artist to play it. Lamb says the company also plans to let you specify a certain playlist from whatever music service you have it hooked up to.
No Spotify, Rdio, or Pandora just yet
Just what those compatible music services will be by the time the Cone goes on sale remains a question, at least for now. (Aether is still working on deals, Lamb says, though the demo I saw was connected to Rdio.) You can also simply push things to it through Apple's AirPlay, like any other speaker.
The Cone will ship first in black with a copper covering on the back. After that, there will be a white model with a silver back. The built-in battery lasts for 8 hours, though you can also just keep it plugged in somewhere near an outlet. Lamb says he expects people to move it around, and that's something the company's planning for with a feature that can tell what part of the house it's in by the strength of the Wi-Fi signal.
Those extra features in the form of software updates are what make the Cone exciting in the same way that smartphones did just a few years ago. It's an unfinished product, but one that Lamb says will keep getting new and improved features coming long after people buy it. That includes a feature that will be able identify multiple users by their phone's Bluetooth signature, or their voice. Another will let Cone owners connect it to other speakers, using it as a traditional receiver. Neither of these are promised to early adopters, but Lamb says the Cone was designed with the future in mind.
"It's a speaker, but there's so much more going on here."