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past.fm

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(Shortlisted for the IXDA Interaction Design Awards ’13 in the “Disrupting” category)

past.fm is an audio device that provides users with a tangible interface to scrub through a timeline of their music listening history or other time-based musical content.

How does it work?
past.fm is a tangible interface, rooted in how people associate particular songs with specific time-periods of their lives. Using a token, users can access their listening history and scrub through a timeline of their favourite music.

System diagram

System diagram

The token accesses this data through the user’s last.fm account which “scrobbles” music services/applications such as Spotify/iTunes, tracking their listening history. Tokens can also connect to curated genre histories or artist discographies, allowing users to learn about the evolution of music over time.

When the token is placed in the dock, the songs are mapped onto the timeline based on their time-stamps. If the token is connected to a user’s history, the range would be the time they have been using that service divided by month. At each point, it plays the user’s most-played song that month. Whereas, if the token is referring to a genre (e.g. jazz) the range would consist of several decades. The slider is then used to navigate through a curated list of jazz hits by year.

Placing (RFID) tokens on the dock. Tokens can be linked to a personal listening history (left) or to a specific genre (right).

Placing (RFID) tokens on the dock. Tokens can be linked to a personal listening history (left) or to a specific genre (right).

Scrubbing through the timeline.

Scrubbing through the timeline of tracks.

The tangibility of the interface encourages both focus and playfulness when reflecting on one’s listening history. The use of tokens allows for sharing and exchanging between friends.

Design Process
(N.B. You can either watch the video below, or scroll down for a written version of our design process)

The project began with some in context based research at stores in Copenhagen, but we soon turned to a user-centered process on home audio practices. We started off by asking: what roll does music play in the everyday lives of people today?

Final_keynote

People we met and interviewed.

We were particularly inspired by the feelings triggered by flipping through tangible media such as records and cassettes. Also the sense of connection to the physical-material aspects of media such as “my first Prince album.” Such feelings seem to be absent when it comes to browsing digital music via screens, our main interface to music today.

Material interactions with media and their emotional associations interested us.

Material interactions with media and their emotional associations interested us.

After speaking to several people from different backgrounds and contexts who had their own unique relationships with music in their lives, we reflected on our observations and gathered together a few insights:

Insights

Insights and observations from user research.

Why this?
After a couple of days of sketching and brainstorming, we eventually decided to build an audio device that focuses on the reflection and re-discovery of music, both from one’s own listening history and that of others’. The primary interaction using a timeline/slider to browse through music is a novel one and at a time when tangible interactions with media are being ignored, we wanted to provide an interface that encourages physical engagement with music. We also found opportunities to use the same tool to browse through other kinds of time-based music histories such as genres and artist discographies.

Reflecting at the end of an intense brainstorm session.

Reflecting at the end of an intense brainstorm session.

Early sketches of the music timeline concept.

Early sketches of the music timeline concept.

Tangible Interface Design
In building past.fm, we used a mixture of digital technologies and crafting techniques. Our aim was to create the most intuitive interaction possible for navigating through a person’s music history. After many experiments with form, we decided to use a linear timeline.

Early iterations on form.

Early iterations on form.

IMG_4729

Several iterations of the form were made using foam.

A very useful step in the process of making past.fm, was a quick video prototype that we made late one night. Making the video gave us an understanding not only of the basic time-based interactions that were involved, but also a glimpse into what the intangible experience of using such a product could be:

It was important that the slider be of appropriate length; however, existing slide potentiometers in the market were not long enough. To solve this problem, we hacked into a used inkjet printer and appropriated the slider mechanism and the optical encoder.

IMG_4690

Hacking an old HP printer to appropriate its slider mechanism and optical encoder.

Care was also taken into crafting the perfect sliding feel and ergonomics. The layout of the interface was settled upon after several iterations with foam and MDF.

IMG_4714

Figuring out the best placement of the LCD screen and the slider knob.

Electronics
past.fm is a working prototype using a combination of two connected Arduino boards, RFID reader, optical encoder, LCD, an mp3 shield, and an amplifier. Here is a quick overview of the electronics inside:

The tokens contain small RFID tags, they are compact for portability and storage purposes.

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We crafted our own RFID tokens.

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Slider mechanism and RFID reader (on left side)

For the materials, we chose beech wood for the main touch points which will age with use; like patina on furniture. The bottom parts of the body were 3D-modeled using Rhinoceros to simulate the internal layout of electronics. The shell was made by layering sheets of laser cut MDF.

Building the body with layered sheets of laser cut MDF.

Building the body with layered sheets of laser cut MDF.

Refining the wooden finish of the prototype.

Refining the wooden finish of the prototype.

The final prototype.

The final prototype.

Final deliverables
We presented our final prototype to industry professionals from CISCO and last.fm complete with a working experience prototype, a demo video and a complete documentation of our rationale and process.

Teammates: Razan Sadeq and Hideaki Matsui
Context: CIID’s Tangible User Interface class around the theme of “Rethinking Audio”
Faculty: Vinay Venkatraman and Richard Shed

 

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