In a quiet SXSW alcove, Aether demos its Cone music player

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on March 7, 2014

From The News Desk

The hustle and bustle of SXSW can get quite overwhelming. At one corner of a room you see VCs chitchatting about God knows what. At another you see developers hatching some code-laden plan probably involving an app. All of this is happening in the center of downtown Austin replete with tall stoic buildings, a convention center straight from the 1980s, and Hiltons and Sheratons up the wazoo.

Hidden away nearly a mile south of all this commotion was a small party celebrating the launch of a new internet of things music device: the Aether Cone. Officially announced a few days ago, this sleek looking music player believes it has solved both the design and hardware issues intrinsic in music streaming from non-computers.

And when it comes to aesthetic, the event's venue perfectly complemented this idea. Participants were asked to meet in front of one of the large Austin hotels to meet with pedicab drivers who fervently peddled across a bridge and to the picturesque Hotel St. Cecilia. Partygoers then walked to a back courtyard surrounded by perfectly trimmed almost New England-y shrubbery with most artisanal hors d'oeuvres imaginable being served. And just a small handful of people were there quietly bantering to each other. Honestly, this was the perfect reprieve from SXSW I could have imagined.

There the company's co-founder Duncan Lamb, who has an extensive design background at companies like Nokia, talked my ear off about his project. It has been operating in stealth for about two years under the name the Morse Project. The problems he finds with most hardware products are what could be described as the little grits of sand that inhibit what would otherwise be a frictionless experience. For instance, let's say you wake up one morning and begin your morning routine. You'r in the kitchen making coffee and want to listen to some tunes. You have a music player, but it's connected to your Pandora. And, goddamnit, your iPhone is in your room! While this isn't the worst problem, obviously, it's still slightly annoying.

photo Aether co-founder Duncan Lamb showing off his nifty product

His answer to this, which is Aether's go-to feature, is to put all of the music-streaming capabilities into the device's hardware. So you go to the device, which can be always be ready and at attention on your kitchen counter, and just turn a knob and music comes on. If you want to request a song you can press the center and speak what you'd like to listen to. If you want something random just turn the front of the device and something will play; if you don't like it, turn it some more. The device will retail for $399.

The idea is to integrate with music streaming providers like Pandora, Spotify, SoundCloud, etc. Lamb was unable to announce which partnerships have been made thus far, but says an announcement is imminent.

He then presented attendees with a demo of the product, and, well, it worked. That is, music played. If we didn't like it, the music changed. Voila! The real question will be which streaming services sign. While some people are die-hard Spotify, others go are on team Pandora. And both services' playlists and functionalities are slightly different. He says that he wants to include as many as possible, but also wants the availabilities to complement each other. That is, people choose Pandora for a playlist, SoundCloud for lesser-known individual tracks, Spotify for full albums, etc. He wants this all to be available on his Cone. Will it? Well, that will probably dictate the success of the product.

What will also give it a boost is if a brick and mortar retailer, like the Apple Store, would feature it. And it just screams Apple; it is easy on the eyes as well as devilishly simple. It's truly just a circular cone with a rotating speaker head. Lamb says the device is also able to pick up user trends based on where they are listening to music, which is determined by wifi strength.

All in all, a very SXSW device and a slightly less intense environment. I left the hotel slightly calmer, thanks to the ambient surroundings, and prepared to be bombarded by more excessive stimuli upon my reentry. Let's hope I can survive.