Create playlists. Choose songs for offline listening. Find similar artists. Thumbs-up the tracks you want, thumbs-down the ones you don't.
Streaming music today is a hands-on process. It's made listeners more active in their song and artist discovery, especially compared to the days of radio.
But the experience has lost something--its simplicity.
"It's kind of a lot of work," says David Ring, co-founder of the music technology startup Aivvy (pronounced "ivy"). "You have to have internet connection to really enjoy it. You're managing a lot of stuff, with online and offline playlists. You have data charges that run up on you. Your cell-phone battery dies.
"It's a lot of different mini-problems, all creating what I would say is a less than ideal music consumption experience."
To solve that, Ring and his team of engineers and former music executives invented Aivvy headphones, which the Silicon Valley-based company is touting as the world's first Internet of Things music player. Just put the headset on and nearly 50 million songs are instantly available to you. No wires, no handheld device, no internet connection needed. The songs are controlled with finger taps to the ear cuff, and the headphones remember and customize your taste preferences.
Ring co-founded Aivvy, which raised close to $200,000 on Kickstarter and received funding from a private angel, after leaving Universal Music Group, where he spent 19 years in the world of digital music. He noticed that despite all the options available to them, the vast majority of music listeners today prefer to do so passively, in what he calls a "leanback experience"--by means of playlists, created either by the user or by someone else.
Each Aivvy headset comes with eight channels, divided into genres: hip-hop, country, pop, indie, and so on. Each station is pre-programmed with 40 to 50 songs. As a song plays, you can double tap the right ear cuff to like it, or swipe to skip it. The Aivvy platform remembers your picks. Then, when you plug it in to recharge (one charge lasts 30 to 40 hours), the headphones connect to your Wi-Fi and send the data to Aivvy's cloud, where an all-mighty algorithm customizes your tastes and prepares your next batch of songs from its catalog. Thanks to a deal with digital music provider Omnifone, that catalog runs about 20 million tracks deeper than Spotify's. The algo also takes into account factors like time of day and your geographic location.
The listening experience requires nothing besides the headphones themselves: Turn a dial around the left ear cuff to adjust the volume; rotate the right dial to change the channel. "It kind of came from place of, yeah, music services are great," says Ring, "but could we make it simpler, easier, and more fun?"
Those who prefer to do things the old-fashioned way--or who want to see the songs and artists currently or previously playing--can download a companion app for their smartphone through which they can control the tunes.
At $299, the headphones are pricey, but on par with Beats and other high-end headsets--and they certainly borrow from the large, simple aesthetic of their predecessors. And the idea of customized music is nothing new--functionally, the platform is almost identical to Pandora. But while Pandora and other streaming services require either Wi-Fi or cell service, Aivvy lets you listen completely offline--and with unlimited skips. The headphones will be available this summer and include 12 months of access to Aivvy's music platform, after which customers will pay for a monthly subscription service--Ring anticipates $3 or $4 per month.
Here's how Ring and the Aivvy team designed the headphones that were an Innovation Awards Honoree at CES in the wearables category--and very well might be the next big thing in music listening.
1. Create a low learning curve. Aivvy might be the first Internet of Things-connected music player, but that doesn't mean it has to be complicated for the user. Listeners can pull the headphones out of the box and, after a quick, one-time setup, be off to the races. There's no interface to navigate, and the four functions are easy enough for even the most tech-illiterate users.
2. Remember that not everyone will use the product the same way--or even the way you intended. Aivvy's handheld-free music platform is its main selling point, but not everyone will want to keep their thumbs out of the equation. The companion app gives users the chance to change songs on a screen. The preset channels can be wiped out and seeded with new artists, so those who want to replace their country station with EDM have the option to do so. And for listeners who want to bypass the Aivvy music platform, a jack means they can plug into Pandora, Spotify, or iTunes and use the headset like traditional headphones.
3. When it comes to aesthetics, don't polarize your customer base. The sleek, simple-looking headphones might be advanced, but they don't look it. "We didn't want something that was oh-my-God funky," says Ring. "On the other hand, we didn't want to just create some piece of industrial equipment that looks like you could pull it out of a low-end electronics shop. I think what we've accomplished is elegant simplicity."
4. Never stop innovating. It's already easy to choose your preferred songs, but Ring wants it to get easier. He envisions customers who buy the headphones through Aivvy's site being able to customize their stations before the product even ships. And the company isn't stopping with headphones: It's developing a prototype for a portable speaker. And it's exploring ways to embed its technology into anything and everything. "Any speaker can be an Aivvy-enabled speaker," Ring says. "That's the real opportunity."