If there's one item that was practically unavoidable at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, it was the Bluetooth speaker, which is suddenly so ubiquitous that it was tough to walk more than 30 seconds of show floor without stumbling on yet another one. In some ways, this is just the unremarkable result of a set of maturing technologies, coupled with growing demand for music that's mobile and uncomplicated. But these same qualities have also turned the Bluetooth speaker into a kind of design playground, giving industrial designers and tech companies an opportunity to flex their creative muscles in much the same way weather apps have for interaction designers.
The Best of Innovations award winners at this year's CES include at least a dozen Bluetooth speakers, some of them quite elegant, and others genuinely innovative. The Stelle Audio Pillar, for example, takes full advantage of the visual simplicity that Bluetooth affords, manifesting as a coolly unobtrusive column, unmarred by wires and perforated with a subtle geometric pattern. Boom Movement's Swimmer, on the other hand, takes the idea of portable sound into new environments, adding water resistance and a prehensile tail that attaches to anything from a fencepost to the handlebars on a commuter bike. Other award winners include a voice-controlled speaker that sits in a cupholder, one that encourages multiple users to "steal" control of the playlist from each other, and a rugged, shock-resistant speaker that clips to your backpack via carabiner.
None of these devices is poised to revolutionize the audio world on its own, but together they indicate a new phase in its evolution, where democratized technology is letting designers stop solving basic functionality problems, and start playing around. Play is what lets us stretch the boundaries of what wireless devices can do, and who they can delight.
So why is 2014 seeing such an explosion of creativity in the category? "I think it really comes down to three things," explains Mike DiTullo, chief design officer at Sound United, the parent company behind the Swimmer. "First, everyone has access to every song now, and the source is super mobile, so the speaker needs to be mobile. Two, the addressable size of the market is huge: basically, everyone with a smartphone. And three, the distribution channel. It's hard for Nordstrom to sell a big home speaker, but it's easy to sell a Swimmer... A bluetooth speaker appeals to people outside a consumer electronics mindset. It allows us to bring audio to where people are, as opposed to bringing people to audio." Just two years ago the young category was dominated by a single product, the Jawbone Jambox. Today, with the market wide open and demand swelling, designers are scrambling to differentiate their offerings.
In the smartphone world, weather apps have served a similar role for several years now, with apps that use color to convey temperature, apps based on Dieter Rams's Principles of Design, apps that are cheeky, apps that are minimal, and dozens more. Besides just telling the weather, these variants are also prototyping new interactions, and methods for conveying information. This has been good for interaction design across the board: it's one thing to theorize, for example, that photoreal animations could make visual information more accessible, but quite another to demonstrate it in a format that everyone already understands.
I'd propose that the Bluetooth speaker will have similar broad-reaching influence in the realm of physical product interactions. If you want to see where portable devices are headed tomorrow—especially those that connect to other devices, and don't necessarily need a screen-based interface—look at the Bluetooth speakers of today.