The future of audio

The way we consume audio has changed quite dramatically in the past decades. As a kid I spent many afternoons in front of my cassette deck recording music off the radio while trying to avoid the inevitable DJ, yapping through the songs. Not much later I got my first Walkman, a neat little machine that advertised a personal lifestyle for music on-the-go. Then collecting compact discs was the new craze, while music became digitized. In the mid-zeroes I was the proud owner of a silver iPod mini, click-wheeling through songs. I converted my CD collection to MP3 format and started purchasing songs from the online music store.

Today the smartphone has usurped almost every possible dedicated audio playback device, while also popularizing features like audio messaging, podcasts and audiobooks. Internet-based streaming services have become the poster children of a globalized digital world, offering music as an all-you-can-eat meal. Just select a playlist, press shuffle and put on a pair of wireless headphones. Times have changed and not always for the better: sometimes I wonder when it was the last time I properly listened to an album back-to-back and where my investment in music has gone.

At Handmade we love to dream of the many different potential futures we could live in. When we dived into how we could change audio experiences as they are today, there were a couple of things that we observed. While the audio landscape has become richer and audio content has become more accessible than ever, audio still feels like a fragmented category. Its recent innovation efforts have been dominated by the global distribution mantra. Also, the popular mix of handheld computational devices and headphones hasn’t made us more social as a species. So we came up with a couple of ideas on how we could improve upon these points.

In search of the physical and local

Because of the digitization and globalization of audio, a couple of great physical and local aspects have almost vanished. The good old days of having to go out to visit a local record store for discovering and ultimately buying a new record or CD are gone. With this we also lost a feeling of intimacy, local character and physical attachment.

Do you remember the time when mixtapes used to embody local music culture? Manual recordings, handcrafted covers and hand-to-hand delivery provided a sense of personalization, uniqueness and excitement of tracks going viral locally. This in contrast to today’s global distribution channels and digital mixtapes, that you could say are just a watered-down metaphor of what once was.

Wondering how we could bring some of these lost characteristics back, we came up with our first fundamental question:

What if audio could intimately connect you to the physical world?

Augmenting the physical world with audio

What if there is a platform that captures all audio playback, everywhere? One that keeps record of the metadata of all individual audio items being played, including geolocation details and a timestamp.

This probably sounds a bit creepy from a privacy perspective, but hear us out. We think that there is something in this for the greater good and that the level of privacy will eventually be determined by the implementation details.

This new infrastructure enables any piece of audio — from music to podcasts and audio tours to live recordings —to become a part of a single integrated augmented audio layer on top of the physical world.

It will capture where a piece of audio content was played first and keep track of how it spreads through local connections. It will map the geolocation details to meaningful locations. A location can be static — like an office building or a café — or dynamic such as a bus or train line. It is also part of a hierarchical structure, so you can zoom out and aggregate audio data on a street, city or country level.

Local playlists, everywhere

Imagine that this platform generates local playlists that reflect popular audio at any place at any time. However, there is one major restriction: in order to access a local playlist, you will first have to visit the actual location. This way you are encouraged to discover popular local audio content by going places.

So whatever audio people play ends up on a local playlist. And wherever you go there will be a catalog of local playlists waiting for you that can inspire you to listen to something new or give you insights into how audio is being experienced in a certain area. You can discover the popular music in your office or favorite coffee bar, podcasts on your commute or audio tours while sightseeing on your city trip.

Discovering local playlists by going places and storing audio moments

The platform persists its data, so it can give you access to a historical archive of local audio that will never wash away. This way you can uncover a historical Beatles track by visiting Abbey Road or listen to Obama’s election victory speech at Grand Park in Chicago.

Discover audio locally and spread it anywhere

Whatever audio you discover you can take with you. You can save specific audio moments to keep track of memories that you are fond of or navigate through your listening history. Just by replaying a piece of audio you take it to other places. So you discover audio locally and spread it anywhere you like. It would just be like the good old days again, when music went viral through mixtapes!

Countering private mode

With portable audio and smartphones, audio in general has become less social and more personal. Today, humans are more inclined to listen to something they feel like by themselves than something public together. Putting on a pair of headphones is the perfect tool to step into your own private cocoon.

On the one hand headphones are social, because you don’t pollute the public sphere with any unwanted sounds. On the other hand they are anti-social, because they indicate that people don’t really want to interact with one another while moving through the same space. They have become the symbol of private mode.

By design, headphones partially close off our immediate surroundings and we got used to this aspect. However, since every problem also offers an opportunity, we asked ourselves:

How can listening to audio on-the-go also become a social activity?

Social headphones

We should accept that most people like to use headphones and are inclined to withdraw themselves into their private little bubble from time to time. But what if multiple people are already wearing headphones and they would somehow be able to connect with each other? Imagine that you can allow people around you to tap into the audio you are listening to, or that you can listen in on someone else’s. Aren’t you curious to find out what other people are listening to?

And what if you can directly interact with other bubbles? For example, show appreciation to someone nearby sharing a great track by triggering a sound effect on the caster’s headphones. This would be a pretty unobtrusive and anonymous way to share some positive feelings. Something like, ‘Hey, I am listening to your tracks and I’m digging what you are playing!’.

Social headphones interaction prototype: local audio discovery and digging a shared track

And what if you can listen to music and — at the same time — speak with friends nearby, by just using the microphone in your earbuds? This would definitely make any shared group listening more social. Imagine a silent disco where you can actually talk with each other! And what if you get notified when you are in range of a good friend, while you listen to music. This would be a pretty intuitive way for people to meet each other.

Social headphones promote self-expression and enable nearby audio sharing and out-of-cocoon interactions

Since music can be an important way to express yourself, why wouldn’t you be able to show your personal style and musical taste by means of your headphones? Imagine light signals that match the colors of your outfit. And what if you display a digital version of a band badge on the side of your headphones by using 3D motion graphics?

These ideas would automatically open the door to a new generation of social headphones that apply the latest technologies to promote self-expression and enable nearby audio sharing and out-of-cocoon interactions.

Next gen headphones: express yourself with personalized lights and visuals, while displaying social interactions

Soundspheres all around

As part of our process we always build quick prototypes that help us bring concepts to life and verify the key interactions. After evaluating our concepts, we got so excited by the combined potential of our ideas, that we decided to tie local audio discovery and audio sharing together into a new audio platform concept, which we coined Soundspheres.

Soundspheres enables an infinite amount of audio bubbles all around you, which you can connect to and interact with. You can create your own sound sphere by near-casting audio; effectively making you a local DJ with a local sphere of influence, which increases when you become more popular. Or you can simply tune into someone else’s sphere. If you like a track, you can give it a boost, showing appreciation to the caster and letting the platform’s ranking algorithm know that you liked it.

A new range of social headphones — from simple earbuds to high-end wireless headphones — visually displays the musical tastes of people and accentuates the connections and interactions that people have through audio.

Artists are able to connect with their audience almost directly. Music lovers can share their music taste with the mind-alike. And existing social groups — like family, friends or colleagues — can very easily share audio and interact with each other in various exciting new ways. Just combine and use the new tools given to your liking.

The platform enables local audio discovery and offers a vast amount of local playlists that you can easily navigate through by using your filters of interest.

Local audio discovery

Soundspheres is an open platform that focuses on gathering, organizing, ranking and personalizing local audio content. For audio playback it interacts with existing audio services, like Apple Music or Spotify.

We are extremely excited by the vast potential of such a platform. Do you want to share your audio with a nearby family member? You can do it. Perhaps organize a silent disco or DJ battle. Easier than ever. Or just tap into the local neighborhood? This platform has you covered!

Left: near-casting music. Mid-top: discovering music near you. Mid-bottom: applying personal filters. Right: upvoting tracks on a local playlist.

We are intrigued to hear your thoughts on the Soundspheres concept. Just leave a response below or just clap if you like it!

Bobby van der Sluis is Lead Creative Technologist at Handmade. His bread and butter is to envision and create magical new products and services.


Handmade is a Product Invention Lab based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and operates across the globe. Handmade helps forward looking technology companies design and prototype their next big things.

If you are interested in these thoughts and the impact on your potential business, get in touch. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

More articles by Handmade