Anyone who’s seen that Jony Ive Wallpaper cover, which is literally a blank slate of white, will readily associate its stark simplicity with one peculiar trend in modern consumer tech design, something I’d call maximalist minimalism. You’ll notice it easily in the smart speakers that are growing abundant all around us: Apple’s HomePod is just a rounded cylinder, Amazon’s latest Echo is a cylinder with a fabric cover, and Google’s Home Mini keeps the fabric but squashes the shape down to a donut. Basically, the more characterless and unnoticeable a smart speaker is, the more satisfied its designers feel.
Bringing lightheartedness to the unnecessarily stuffy smart speaker category
Teenage Engineering is going in the diametrically opposite direction with its newly unveiled H speaker, which looks like a stack of colorful plastic blocks attached to a bright red coiled wire. Hell, on first look, you might not even be sure what the thing does. There’s an interactive LED array on the top block, which can be detached from the base to provide both controls and cuteness on the move. The Swedish designers have partnered with Chinese giant Baidu for this product, co-designing it with Raven Tech, an AI startup that Baidu acquired earlier this year, and selling it through Raven online store for ￥1,699 (roughly $256).
Intended only for the Chinese market, the Raven H runs Baidu’s DuerOS and, being a smart speaker, it accepts voice commands for a number of functions beside playing music. It can control the smart lighting in your home, call a taxi, search for information, and also schedule actions such as turning on the TV at the correct time for you to watch the next episode of your favorite televisual entertainment. The voice controls also work with the other products in the newly unveiled Raven line, one of which is a rather zany robotic arm, co-designed with Teenage Engineering again, titled Raven R.
The Raven R comes with the hyperbolic claim of having “emotional intelligence,” though all that really means is that it can — upon user command — express a number of emotions by gyrating its multi-jointed body. It’s another endearing use of technology, though a less obviously useful one. The Raven R and a concept Raven Q “AI Home Robot” complete the introductory trifecta of what Baidu seems to hope will be a growing ecosystem of AI products for the home, though neither of the two has a price or release date yet.
For the Raven H, Baidu has secured deals with InterContinental Hotels Group and home decor store Jia.com. The cute speaker will be installed in 100 rooms at the InterContinental Beijing Sanlitun hotel, a luxury destination where most rooms cost more than the cost of the speaker itself. Jia.com will provide an additional outlet for Chinese buyers to acquire the Raven H beside Raven’s own online store.