Making music selection tactile again

In this article we share how we created a digitally powered jukebox to make music selection tactile again.

Thanks to digital platforms and streaming services, we all have access to a lifetime’s worth of music in an instant, enjoying new releases the moment they come out by simply pressing a button. Digital has made music more immediate and accessible - but also less meaningful.

The journey, anticipation and connection that physical formats created - whether a collection of vinyl, CDs or cassettes - has been lost somewhere along the way. The cover art, the physicality of the object, the contemplation of an album or track list - all gone.

CDs are my medium of choice at home. You choose from a finite selection depending on your mood, put the CD in the player and listen to it in its entirety, after which silence kicks in - all important stages in appreciating a body of music.

In a more social setting, a jukebox largely replicates this interaction.

The key stages are:

  1. Viewing the music selection
  2. Physically selecting the music
  3. Silence once the music selection has ended

Sonos speakers are dotted around our London studio. Given their versatility, they’re ideal for a workplace, but are also the antithesis of all the above points. So when our creative lead approached me with the idea of controlling a Sonos with a Raspberry Pi (a computer the size of a juice box costing around £30), I knew we could be onto something exciting.

We’d been riffing on the idea of creating a solution for choosing office music for a while and with a connected TV and 3D printer at our office, we had all the ingredients to bring the idea together.

We landed on the concept of a digitally-powered jukebox. Because it’s a social and physical music device, anyone can choose music from a predefined pool of albums for the entertainment of the whole office. The jukebox can talk to any of the Sonos speakers and utilise their power but also give the user a set of defined playlists to help create a better, more intimate relationship with the music.

To make the idea truly social, and bring back the nostalgia of mix-tapes while we were at it, we agreed that the playlists should be user generated. By giving this control over to the office, we could still define the flavours of the week, while giving all musical tastes a voice. Our talented team of designers could also get involved by creating their own artwork for the playlists, taking user involvement even further.

From idea to execution

To summarise our current setup, we had a Raspberry Pi with a few buttons and a RFID reader communicating via Wifi to a Sonos Play:1 speaker and a database that then informs a web based front-end that is displayed on our connected TV.

Because this was intended to be a jukebox, we needed to consider how we interacted with it to actually choose music. We settled on the idea of using little 3D printed tokens containing RFID chips to represent the music. RFID chips were very applicable for this task as they are cheap to buy, do not carry data and have unique IDs that can be mapped to a playlist of songs.

We started with a rough interface, which gave us something to imagine and helped define the user experience of the jukebox. We wanted to keep the controls simple and only offer the bare minimum of functionality to help support the personal connection to the music that we were striving for. We already knew that the playlist selection would be controlled by the RFID chips, so we only needed to show the playlists. This meant that a simple back button would suffice to return to the playlist menu.

For music controls, we had to include a ‘pause/resume’ button, but we also decided to add a ‘next song’ button to give a little bit of control over what was being heard (thinking ahead to next Christmas here. Turns out Christmas playlists can only be so original).

The user experience

With regards to the user experience, initially, when a playlist would finish the interface would return to the start of the playlist in pause mode, so you would need to press the back button if you wanted to go back to the playlist menu. We changed this so it would automatically return to the playlist menu on completion of a playlist - a simple yet effective solution.

Another challenge was giving the user a glimpse of the other playlists without finishing the current playlist. We solved this by presenting a drawer with the playlist artwork when you clicked the menu button. This would show for five seconds before it automatically slid away and returned to the ‘now playing’ screen, giving the user enough time to see what each token did.

Overall, the project has been a great exercise in creating a super minimal user experience, whilst retaining enough features to make the device usable and enjoyable to use. Having a UI that is functional without the freedom of using, say, a mouse or keyboard, was a really different way of thinking and allowed us to keep the hardware really minimal and frictionless.

To conclude

While the digital jukebox may not entirely capture the nostalgia of getting a new CD, limiting the user’s music selection and blurring the line between digital and physical mediums is what can help create a more intimate relationship with music. In my opinion, it’s definitely what we were able to achieve with this experiment.

We’ll soon be publishing a second article about the jukebox, focusing on the technical aspects of the execution, so stay tuned.