Thursday, February 02, 2006

The MP3 Revolution

The freedom of downloadable media

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, February 3, 1999 -- [Image]
Probably the most exciting thing about industrial
design is the ability it gives you to envision the future
as if it were a scene from "Space Odyssey: 2001" and then
watch as that dream is transformed into reality.

Not too long ago the concept of downloadable media was
part of just such a futuristic utopia. Prescient
industrial designers (such as those working on Philips'
"Vision of the Future" project) had proposed models of
devices that distributed music in a variety of forms from
a downloadable source, but to most people this
Jetsons-like concept was difficult to grasp, let alone
believe in.

Well, Diamond Multimedia and MP3 have made it a reality
virtually overnight with the introduction of the Rio MP3
player, a portable device that allows users to record and
play back CD-quality music by downloading from the
Internet.

On a purely practical level, today's MP3 players are
great. They're discrete, you can jog or walk without
worrying about mechanical skips, they eliminate the need
to trek out to the store, and you won't run out of shelf
space.

The design of the Rio, which makes it look like a
miniature Walkman-wannabe, is disappointing. The buttons
look sleek, but it seems that little attention was paid
to creating a truly new interface to match the novelty of
the medium, e.g. including scrolling wheels or larger
onscreen displays. Nevertheless, the implications of
bringing this new technology to a mainstream audience are
nothing short of thrilling.

New spins on music consumption

Some say that the printing press turned everyone into a
reader and the Internet turned everyone into an author;
now, MP3 turns them into DJs. It gives users more power
and control over organizing, storing, cataloging, and
perhaps even manipulating music.

In the near future we can expect MP3 technology in
products such as digital voice recorders, sound mixers
and personal organizers. With new devices and
well-designed interfaces, the average person might have
more access to sound mixing tools. And these tools might
encourage experimental music composition by virtue of the
fact that one no longer has to play an instrument to
"write" and play music. In addition, the availability of
an MP3 chipset will allow designers to bring music into
new territory by literally hiding it in the existing
domestic landscape (How 'bout an MP3 La-Z-boy?) or in
articles of clothing.

Not surprisingly, there is a legal battle raging over how
MP3 should be handled. Some musicians and independent
music labels think it will provide new opportunities for
exposure and distribution. In addition, some artists
might find it gives them greater control over their
music, profits and performance rights. DJs, for example,
can set up their own "stations," streaming many types of
audio information including talk as well as music.

On the other hand, artists will have to be active in
maintaining their rights against some listeners who will
illegally pirate music whenever possible. And of course,
the record distribution companies -- represented by RIAA
(Recording Industry Association of America) -- are
furious about all of this. Nevertheless, the initial
popularity of the format, the ease with which novices can
learn to use it, and the tenacity of a web-linked
subculture are helping MP3 to maintain a foothold.

Ultimately, MP3 offers new possibilities for
dematerialization and hybridization of objects. In other
words, industrial designers are no longer limited to
forcing a "skin" or shell around bulky electromechanical
innards. Instead, as Derrick de Kerckhove, director of
the McCluhan Institute, wrote in his book "Brainframes,"
there are new opportunities to make design the veritable
"skin of culture". The design can focus on the use,
application and cultural significance.

Please feel free to post your comments in Your Two Cents,
a folder on our Message Board.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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