Feature Design WALKMAN W Series
[ 2009.10.23 up ]

Try on a new style of listening

What have wearable audio players been missing? What kind of player would music lovers love? One answer emerged from designer brainstorming and original Sony technology. Listen to the prelude to a new Walkman in sync with how people are enjoying music.

Jun Komiyama
Jun Komiyama
Sony Corporation
Creative Center
Producer and Senior Designer
Satoshi Asai
Satoshi Asai
Sony Corporation
Creative Center
Designer
Hiroshi Sato
Hiroshi Sato
Sony Corporation
Creative Center
Information Architect
Manabu Fujiki
Manabu Fujiki
Sony Corporation
Creative Center
Designer
Asami Yamagishi
Asami Yamagishi
Sony Corporation
Creative Center
Designer

Collaborating to navigate the obstacles in uncharted territory

Komiyama: One product I helped design was Sony Active Style Headphones. I was later approached by someone in product planning who liked that work. He asked me to create a wearable Walkman in the same style, and that's how it all began. As the saying goes, it was easier said than done especially this time. Many manufacturers including Sony have tried their hand at wearable audio players. But personally, I don't know of any that are firmly established in the market.

It's easy to guess why, because above all, they have been hard to use. People have had to fumble with these screenless players to find songs. If you have many tracks, your hand stays glued to the player as you hunt down the one you want. That much stress, and you forget how nice it is without the cords. People should enjoy wearable players, but designers have had a hard time ensuring usability. And the fact that potential users can't choose their favorite headphones and have no recourse if they don't like the fit or audio quality made people think twice.

That's not our goal anyway, to have people occupied with the controls. The user experience must be much more enjoyable than squinting at a tiny display, trying to control the player. Once wearable players offer a better experience, people will appreciate their advantages. Here, the key is the user interface. So before our industrial design got underway, I approached Hiroshi in auditory UI design, a field where we approach usability from the standpoint of sound.

Sato: Never before in my experience had sound been so critical to easier operation. And this was not minimal usability, either; we were not compromising. Atsushi and I felt that we had to do something about the silence when listeners are finding tracks, which is "empty" without music. The more songs you have, the longer this blank, empty time is. Surely this is unacceptable, in a device designed for music entertainment. We discussed it at length, but it looked like we would never resolve it. Maybe Satoshi couldn't bear to see us continue, or maybe we were just too distracting, but in any case, one day he leaned forward from his desk and suggested Zappin as a solution.

Changing tune, from tedious to entertaining

Asai: Zappin is a UI control I developed for car audio systems. It's straightforward in operation. An excerpt of each track is played, one after another, until the song you want is played and you select it. In cars, this frees you from keeping your hand on the controls while driving and lets you focus on the road. Just twist the dial to start searching. But what inspired me to consider it for portable audio players was when I noticed myself constantly fidgeting with my Walkman during commutes. I thought Zappin might be an effortless way to control audio players.

When I overheard Atsushi and Hiroshi, I had a hunch we could use it. Sony has also developed 12-tone analysis technology, and together, the two technologies can extract exciting passages for shuffle playback. Sampling songs this way is also very common on music programs that count down the top hits. It's like a brief introduction of the memorable passages, the highlights. In this respect, Zappin is growing beyond just a search function. Not only does it eliminate the silent, empty moments during searches, it keeps you entertained. That's why you can also consider Zappin a new playback function. Enjoy it as a style of listening that reflects current trends.

Still, we faced some resistance even from within the company, from those who couldn't seem to grasp the proposal. Critics pointed out how controls from the days of analog media still feel intimately familiar, and how enjoying tracks in their entirety is so ingrained in us. But if we compare the traditional style of listening to dining on a full-course meal, from appetizer to dessert, Zappin serves you the tastiest bite-sized morsels from a variety of main dishes. Both are enjoyable, and certainly it's fine that people have their own preferences. To educate our colleagues, the designers took the initiative in development, gave demonstrations, and spent time talking with others until more people understood.

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