There are areas of industrial design that might seem esoteric but that I think every lay person can appreciate. One area is the use of sound (audio feedback) in user interfaces. I’m sure plenty of designers think about sound when they’re designing something, but it seems that more often than not it’s a secondary issue, relegated to simple feedback during input commands or emergency notification of a problem.
Just about everything in existence makes some sort of sound when used, either by design or by accident of design. Think about the last time you tried to do something only by touch, say plugging a cable into the back of a stereo receiver, threading a nut onto a bolt in a place you can’t see, or fumbling around in the dark looking for a lightswitch. Think about all the noises you hear and how you respond to them. One of the first things I was taught about MIG welding was to listen for the characteristic sound of a good weld — the sound of sizzling bacon. You might not be able to see the torch or the bead, but if you hear the sizzling sound, you know you’re probably making a good weld.
Now compare that to the Icom R-3 scanner which has an amazing range of responses to key presses: “beep” and “beep beep”. Never mind that it has an internal tuner capable of going from dc to daylight, a speaker and a video screen, the only thing it can do in response to user input is “beep” or “beep beep”. Sure, it’s got a dual-LCD display that can show live ATSC or wireless security cam video on one screen while displaying the frequency on the secondary screen, but odds are I’m listening to an audio channel and not staring at a tiny screen. Even if I am staring at the screens, all the feedback I get is “beep” or “beep beep”.
It never hit me just how annoying this was until I started reading about the Elecraft KX1. The KX1 is a miniature, low-power transceiver with only a three digit LED display. The rest of the feedback is audio, sent in Morse code over the audio output. You have to be a licensed amateur radio operator to transmit with a KX1 and it’s only usable in CW (amateur radio lingo for Morse code transmissions), so having it send user interface data via Morse is a rather obvious design decision.
So this leads me back to the title: why does the iPod have a screen? The iPod is about listening to music, not watching video. It’s certainly inconvenient to have to pull the iPod out of your belt pouch while jogging — and unsafe to look it while driving — just to figure out what music you want to play next. You could argue that the iPod Shuffle lacks this limitation, but it since all it can do is random play or sequential play, it doesn’t need any sort of user interface.
Here’s what I think the iPod should do: read to you what is currently on the iPod. Not just in sequential order while you mouse around, but skip around the way your housemate would while randomly poking through the CD rack. “Aphex Twin. White Zombie. Conlon Nancarrow. Apocolyptica. Sugarcubes. Dean Martin. Bauhaus. C-Tec. Lovespiralsdownards. Chris and Cosey. Dead Voices on Air. Jane Jensen. Orbital. Download. Kraftwerk. Dead Can Dance. Shriekback. Meat Beat Manifesto.” When it reads off something you like, you hit the “ok” button, and it starts reading off similar things by genre and alphabetically.
Let’s say you press “OK” right after it says “Orbital.” It will start listing artists that start with “O”, artists in genres related to “Orbital”, and finally, everything that begins with the letter “O”: “Orbital albums by title. The Orb. 187 Calm. Aphex Twin. KLF. Electronica. Trance. Rave. Roy Orbison. Underworld. The Ordinaires. Willam Orbit. Vidna Obana. Infected Mushroom. Goa. Wipeout XL Soundtack.” and then every disc, track and artist that begins with the letter “O”.
Text-to-speech conversion isn’t free, but does it cost more than adding photo support to the iPod? Which would I rather have: the ability to display photos, or a touch/audio user interface that lets me keep my eyes on the road while picking the music I want to listen to?
I completely forgot about the PhatBox from PhatNoise. It’s a hard drive based MP3 player for your car that uses “PhatNoise Voice Indexing” technology to read off the titles of your MP3 files. A pal of mine has one of these in his R32 and loves it.