Guiding the listening experience
into an uncharted future
Headphones go over your ears, virtually shutting out ambient noise. When you use earbuds, too, it’s hard to hear anything besides your tunes. Now, imagine getting a personal music experience without actually putting anything over or in your ears. That’s the unprecedented experience at the heart of “ambie sound earcuffs,” which let users add a musical accompaniment to their day-to-day activities—and still hear the people and things around them. Design played a vital role in adopting a user-oriented stance and making that vision a reality.
We sat down with members from the project team to learn more about how that new user experience took shape.
Planning, Marketing, and PR,
Sony Creative Center
Project Leader, ambie corporation
A revealing glimpse
of the future
Ambie corporation, a Sony spin-off joint venture, set its sights on creating “earcuffs” that could transform how users experienced day-to-day life. Since no one had ever tried to do anything like that, though, the team was starting from scratch. With no real road map to guide the way, how did the project get traction and start moving forward?
Hosoda: We wanted to deliver an experience that people had never encountered before. As a designer, I’d been formulating ideas for the next wave of wearable devices—and I wanted to create experiences that blended sound into space, enabling listeners to absorb music in the air. When I saw the first engineering prototype, I felt like I was looking right at the idea that’d been dancing around my head. I knew the device had enormous potential, the makings of something that could be really transformative. No one had ever tried anything like it—and that complete lack of any models to emulate is what made the whole project so exciting.
Mihara: The idea grew out of a disconnect we’d been noticing. People were starting to get content from a more advanced range of sources, like artificial intelligence-driven information services and music streaming services, but they were consuming the content with devices that weren’t really evolving. Take headphones and earbuds. They’ve pretty much followed the same patterns for decades, and they’ve got obvious limitations—they block your ears, so it’s not like you can use them whenever you want. We wanted to see if we could create a device that would let people bring information and music into whatever day-to-day scene they wanted to.
Tagami: The thing we had to figure out next was how to craft a new listening experience. We got to thinking about music’s roles. Watching TV, for example, you hear music everywhere; dramatic scenes have dramatic scores, which serve to enhance the experience. That’s the direction we wanted to head—giving people a way to augment more facets of their lives with background music, a kind of dynamic soundtrack.
Finding the story that
weaves the product and
the user together
The basic concept behind the earcuffs was clear from the beginning. The design? Not so much. The original idea, according to the team, wasn’t even remotely close to what they ended up with in the end. How did they manage to navigate and steer that evolutionary process?
Mihara: Hosoda’s original prototype didn’t look anything like earphones at first glance—it was a fresh take, a modern spin on the standard design approach. We were all gung ho about it. We headed off to the United States and field-tested the prototype around San Francisco, asking people around town and college campuses to get their thoughts. The reactions, though, caught us off guard. People loved the look of the design, but it might’ve been too innovative for its own good—the form and the fit were so new and unfamiliar that the testers couldn’t figure out how to place the device correctly on their ears. Not too many people seemed really enthusiastic about the idea of actually owning and using it, either, so we had to find a way to connect the product with lifestyles.
Hosoda: Looking back at that first design, I think we were leaning too hard on the functional side: The “out-of-ear” idea was pretty much the only dimension. We needed to shift the focus—it was all about how people engaged with music at a more basic level. We headed back out and watched people walking the streets, thinking of what their personal soundtracks might sound like. We hit the beach, sat down, and watched a woman strolling on the sand. “What do you think she’d want to hear,” we asked ourselves, “against the sound of the waves?” As we tried to imagine a clearer vision of the music dynamic in people’s lifestyles, I started to render that hidden story—that narrative weaving the user and the product together—in a more concrete, visual shape.
Tagami: With Hosoda’s insight into our target persona, the ideal design gradually came into focus. We eventually gave the idea a name—“sound earcuffs”—that helped establish differentiation from traditional earbuds, form the product’s identity as a platform for “new experiences,” and even lay the groundwork for a promotional strategy.
Hosoda: We’re a startup, so there was a real ambitious, “do-it-ourselves” mentality running through the project. We were the ones who did the field tests in San Francisco; we were the ones doing the designing. Without that tight, responsive teamwork, I don’t think we would’ve been able to come up with such a new, compelling design. The immediacy of everything we did—talking directly with potential customers, getting a firsthand feel for trends, and actually hearing about the experiences and lifestyles that people wanted—paid huge dividends. We translated all that input back into the idea as soon as it came in, putting us on the fast track to the earcuffs that we’ve got here today.
Co-creation with users:
A source of
new experience value
Showcasing a brand-new experience can be a challenge. To reach users effectively, the team carefully chose touchpoints that would create compelling encounters.
Tagami: To show users exactly what the earcuffs experience was all about, we knew that we couldn’t just foreground the “out-of-ear” functionality—we had to speak to our audience about transforming lifestyles. That’s why we put so much into selecting optimal touchpoints, the best interfaces for translating the product experience into a clear, explicit message. We chose to market the products at select shops with a lifestyle-oriented focus, for example, because we knew that the in-store environments were the perfect environments for users to envision their lifestyles—and staff members could better tailor their pitches to specific usage scenarios. A sales associate could focus particularly on running with the earcuffs on, for example, underscoring the element of being able to listen to music but still hear ambient sounds. For us, getting that new experience across is crucial—and we know how important that initial user-product encounter is.
We’re also incorporating social media. SNS platforms let people “upload” their lifestyles and connect with followers, so online channels represent another great medium for meeting people on a lifestyle-based wavelength.
Hosoda: The packaging was key, too. Instead of putting a picture of the product on the box, we opted for a silhouette in a marbled fusion of all six color variations. That distinctive outline, with its palette of colors flowing in and out of each other, captures the kind of smooth blend that we were going for with the core concept: music and life melding together in harmony. The box doesn’t explain what the product is, either. It’s all about triggering curiosity through a packaging design that makes people want to know more—and, in doing so, adds a sense of excitement to that initial encounter.
The designer was a part of the ambie sound earcuffs project from the get-go, propelling the project forward.
Mihara: For designers, projects are all about the user experience. Engineers, though, tend to see the challenges of a project through a technical lens—the technological needs might be too demanding or costly. While those things are important, of course, there’s no point in developing a product if the user experience doesn’t have a thrilling, captivating component to it. On the earcuffs project, the user experience was in the driver’s seat. Pursuing that end goal forces the technology to evolve, in a way, and take new forms around the target experience. If designers and engineers collaborate in a tight, close framework, they can really elevate each other—that’s certainly what happened with the earcuffs, which matured from a focus on “out-of-ear” functionality into an exploration of rich, one-of-a-kind experiences.
Hosoda: To me, the earcuffs are what they are because of all the users that we’ve met along the way. We’d always centered our core message on music accompanying activities, a way for people to soundtrack their lives. After the official launch, though, the end users showed us how there was more to the product than just that basic concept. One user, for example, put on his earcuffs, started talking to his friend, and then started dancing to the beat while he was chatting. The whole conversation took on a brighter, more positive tone. Another person said that the songs he played changed his perceptions of what he was seeing and doing. We’re not the only ones who design the experience value. The users co-create it with us.
Designers are always sensing changes in the times, picking up on people’s ideas and feelings, and finding ways to deliver experiences that satisfy new, emerging needs. That’s what we do. If we can keep opening eyes and thrilling people with tastes of the unknown, we’ll be opening worlds of new value—and even transforming the future.
With ambie sound earcuffs, the barriers between private music experiences and the world around you
—from conversations with other people to ambient sounds—disappear. The new device is just another example of Sony Design’s commitment to crafting new experiences, an effort that thrives on close, collaborative connections with users.