iDesign on inMotion Portable Speakers: The Altec Lansing/IDEO Interview | iLounge Article

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iDesign on inMotion Portable Speakers: The Altec Lansing/IDEO Interview

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At one point, the iPod was designed only to be used with earphones. Then, with the addition of its bottom Dock Connector port, an entire industry developed around iPod-specific speakers, sparked by Altec Lansing’s release of a book-sized portable audio system called inMotion. Earlier this month, our seventh edition of iDesign looked back at the inMotion family, which grew after the initial release to include many different models with unique shapes, performance characteristics, and prices. This week, we interviewed people from two of the companies behind inMotion speakers: Altec Lansing, creator of the entire inMotion line, and design house IDEO, which worked on a number of the family’s speakers.

With Altec, we looked at the entire inMotion lineup, as explained by the company’s Bernice Cramer, Senior Vice President for Marketing and Product Management. At IDEO, we focused mostly on the stunning inMotion iM7, talking with lead designer Jerry O Leary, project lead Iain Roberts, and lead engineer Ken Ritsher. We hope that you enjoy this special, extended iDesign Interview.

(1) Back in 2003, no one was releasing iPod-specific audio systems. Take us back to the creation of the very first inMotion speaker—what were Altec Lansing’s goals for the product, and how did they change during development?

Bernice Cramer, Altec Lansing: Altec Lansing always keeps the same goal in mind when producing new products. That is, to solve some product need or pain gap with an audio solution that will genuinely delight the consumer. When looking at the potential of the iPod back in 2003 we quickly realized that personal listening only was limiting. The existing portable audio systems of that time did not address the gap between the limited ways people could use their iPods, and the multiple ways people actually wanted to store, sync, share and even carry their music.

The original inMotion speaker, developed by Altec Lansing

We spoke with iPod owners and learned that the convenient charging and syncing of the iPod was a need and we also saved the consumer the expense of the solitary dock. iPod users loved that their music was portable, and that they could take it with them. Altec Lansing had the enabling digital audio technologies in place, and it was a natural fit to make a smaller portable audio system that sounded big.

(2) Altec became involved with the outside design company IDEO at some point in the inMotion family tree. What were Altec’s and IDEO’s roles in developing the successors to the original inMotion?

Cramer: The product development itself is always held within Altec Lansing. However, we completely recognize that great audio performance is not enough in and of itself. A truly great audio product starts with purposeful acoustic, electrical and mechanical design, but also requires world-class ID for the look, the feel, the operation and the user interface. Altec Lansing has used and continues to use outside design firms to bring global insight into design trends. Not only does this inform us of what consumers are thinking, or lacking, but it helps us know the newest materials, finishes and processes. Partnering with external firms permits greater external vision and awareness of consumer needs and desires, and allows Altec Lansing to deliver the most cutting edge products to the market. We were, and remain very proud to work with some of the world’s best firms, including IDEO.

Altec’s and IDEO’s inMotion iM7, in final form, and as an early IDEO mock-up

Our commitment to best-in-class design is realized by the growth of our internal Industrial Design division, led by award-winning designer Darrin Caddes and his team of outstanding designers at our parent company, Plantronics. Having a world-class team of designers in-house gives us the ability to work on future concepts as well as current projects, and helps us lift the Altec design voice to a higher plane. By concentrating on excellent ID – in combination with exceptional electrical and acoustic design—is how Altec Lansing continuously raises the bar with each new series of audio devices.

(3) IDEO’s most famous involvement with the inMotion series was the tube-like iM7, which remains one of the best iPod speakers ever made, both aesthetically and in “bang for the buck.” Can you tell us the story behind its design—was it a response to the Bose SoundDock?—and fill us in on why there hasn’t been a follow-up?

Cramer: Well, we like the iM7 too! It is really quite an iconic design and continued selling well for some time. Certainly we think highly of Bose and they clearly showed that there was a market desire for sleek, stationary iPod stereo solutions. Altec Lansing took the concept one step further, however, to design a truly flexible player with amazing sound. It turned out that iPod owners really like the idea of taking music anywhere, so in fact the iM7 owes much of its very high performance to boomboxes. Our design team came up with the iconic shape and we confirmed that it worked well acoustically. Altec Lansing engineered a whole lot of performance into the iM7 such as the development of our own unique digital amplifier.

Early mock-ups of the iM7’s design suggested a pill-like shape with the familiar iPod groove at center

Today we still see the need for a wide variety of audio solutions. As your readers may know, Altec Lansing now offers AC [wall outlet] only solutions, some with radio tuners and many other desired features. Without revealing secrets, we can suggest that you keep watching the space because we continue to innovate and raise the bar on performance, value and on the ways that iPod audio is used.

(4) IDEO, the iM7 was a radical visual departure from earlier iPod audio systems. What were your inspirations and goals for this system?

Jerry O Leary, IDEO: We looked at the existing best-in-class iPod speakers out there and found, after analyzing the market, that there was a nice little space for the iM7 to sit if we hit the right price and functionality. We wanted to have the best-in-class audio experience with the added benefit of portability, and deliver it at a lower cost to the consumer than the competition.

Further evolution of the iM7 design saw inclusion of what eventually became its side-firing subwoofer chamber

As far as the aesthetics, we thought hard about how to be respectful to the iPod itself and the Apple brand. We strived toward something iconic. The iM7 was about simplicity and protection; a cylinder with a bite out of it to keep your iPod secure. The end result was a minimalist boombox that had to be approved by Apple design in order for Altec Lansing to produce it.
 
(5) iM7 clones have appeared over the past year or two. As designers, how does it feel to see other companies “borrow” your work—does it seem like theft, a compliment, or something else?
 

iM7’s concept—shape, iPod dock orientation, and speaker array—obviously inspired later competing products, such as iLive’s IBCD3816D (below)

O Leary: I think design is something you don’t own anymore once it’s on the market. I think that’s natural. If someone borrows elements, it’s a compliment, and it’s even better if they build upon the concept and improve it. I saw what I thought was an iM7 for sale for $80, plus it included an FM radio. My first thought was, “how did they manage to get all those things in there for that price? That’s impressive.”

(6) Of the other inMotion series speakers you worked on, which was your favorite, and why?

Ken Ritsher, Lead Engineer: As the lead engineer on the project, I came to prize the iM7 as my favorite product. There were quite a few technical challenges that needed to be overcome in order to execute the design we envisioned.

iM7 hid its Infrared sensor behind a metal grille (above), and smoothly fused metal and plastic surfaces (below)

The round metal perforation, the flush surfaces where the perf meets plastic, the hiding of the IR sensor and of all of the fasteners—those are the design details that help make the iM7 special. They also represent an engineering or manufacturing problem that needed to be solved. 

inMotion iM11 (left) and iM5 (right) featured collapsing docks that provided both connectivity and stability

The other products were a lot of fun, too. The iM5 and the other designs with the collapsing docks involved some nifty mechanisms, but the iM7 was where we could really draw out the design’s iconic elegance, by virtue of its size. To this day, the iM7 impresses me with its sound.

(7) Were there any other speaker designs that you really wanted to find a way to make work, but couldn’t, because of shapes, size, or materials?
 
Ritsher: Some of the early concepts were visually very flat, but we were limited in how thin we could go by the amount of acoustic volume that the speakers needed. These ideas also didn’t lend themselves as well to portable devices, so we shelved them. 

We looked at a lot of other simple, extruded geometric forms, but ultimately decided that the round cylinder was the most interesting.  It’s not that we couldn’t have made the others work, in fact, there are a lot of products on the market now that look a lot like some of our early sketches.

(8) Did IDEO work on systems like the iM600 and M602, or were those developed without your involvement? Are there any other iPod or computer products you’ve designed that fans of your work could check out?
 
Iain Roberts, Project Lead: After the iM7 program, we collaborated with Altec Lansing to develop a comprehensive design language for all of their inMotion products, so while we didn’t actually design the products you mention, they were inspired by our work. The last couple of years have seen the media player audio market explode and become heavily commoditized. We recently worked with Altec Lansing again to help them navigate this space, identifying the opportunity areas for product innovation as well as defining a new range of conceptual products.

IDEO’s computer accessories—notably including the original mouse for Apple’s first Macintosh—also range into recent designs such as sleek hard drives

Beyond our work with Altec Lansing, we still design a lot of products in the consumer electronics space, a couple of recent successful examples being the Western Digital MyBook and MyPassport external hard drives, which you may have seen at an Apple Store.  

(9) Altec, the inMotion series made a radical cosmetic change after the iPod nano came out, jettisoning the old colors and shapes in favor of flat black slates with docks. What was the thinking behind these changes?

Cramer, Altec Lansing: Ford and Chanel have made black a classic, so we followed suit. It’s important to consider that—at the time – Apple’s major share was in black iPod models which naturally led us to black. Another reason was that no matter what the color iPod nano, every model looked good against the striking black background. Over the years we have offered some of our speaker systems in white and other colors as well, based on consumer desires.

Following the release of iPod-specific black models iM500 and iM600, Altec released SoundBlade, an aesthetically similar flat inMotion speaker stripped of the iPod dock, but augmented with Bluetooth wireless connectivity and a microphone for phones

It is important to note that we specifically engineered the iM500 to match the thin form factor of the iPod nano. A thin speaker system required innovative speaker technology and we developed our own flat drivers that sounded like “Wow!” We liked the result so much that we brought a similar ID to other products like the iM600 and our new iMT525 SoundBlade. It is difficult to get quality sound from small, portable speakers, but Altec Lansing has the know-how and “secret” methods to carefully control the various elements that achieve acoustic performance. This includes the very precise “look” of the products, which goes beyond cosmetics and actually offers important acoustical properties. You will see these designs continue to evolve. Meanwhile, we do not think our iMV712 looks anything like the other two mentioned, though it was available in black, nor was our M602 AC unit or our other designs for Zune or Sansa in the same vein. Again, we want design to add to the value and pleasure of using and enjoying.

(10) Obviously, the thinner and smaller an audio system gets, the more difficult it is to squeeze rich sound out of its speakers. Why did you decide to take on the “impossibly thin” challenge with iM500, especially without using the most obvious solution—NXT flat panel drivers?

Cramer: We love a challenge, we love to delight our consumers and we like the iPod nano, which is consistent with value and portability like some of our audio solutions. We have a lot of respect for NXT and indeed have worked with them on our PT Series of SoundBars for home theater.

Altec’s team chooses components and designers suited to products and product families; it bucked conventional wisdom by self-designing a flat speaker for iPods, and went with NXT drivers for its home theater SoundBars (PT7031, shown)

However, with the iM500 we did not need to reach out to NXT as we developed the solution ourselves. This of course gives us the best chance to customize and maximize the performance and, with due respect to NXT, not paying to license anything in this case allowed us to provide more value for our customers. We do not use technology as a list of badges on product packaging, rather we want to employ them when they fill that “gap” or relieve that consumer “pain.” Note that we have experimented with other vendor solutions, but implementation is always dependent on what delivers the best sounding product to our customers.

(11) Video has been an increasingly important part of the iPod family over the past two and a half years, and with the exception of iMV712, Altec hasn’t ventured into iPod video accessories at all. Given what a big player you’ve been in portable audio, why have you stayed away from portable video add-ons, and will that change now that Apple appears to have standardized video output from its devices?

Though technically part of the portable inMotion family, iMV712 (above) isn’t a portable video system; while companies such as Philips (below) release battery-powered screen and speaker units, Altec is mulling the market

pic

Cramer: Altec Lansing actually was the first company to offer video outputs on a docking station and as you note we also made the acoustically impressive iMV712 Mini-Theater. We will continue to look at video and how to enhance the experience as we can. With so much development in the area of television and displays these days we need to be mindful of value and compatibility and in fact the changes in iPod only underscore this. We will keep studying and if we see the chance to delight, we will think of taking up the challenge.

(12) On a related note, a couple of your inMotion speakers, the iM413 and iM414, include clock radios but were never released for the iPod—only a couple of its competitors. Given how successful you’ve been with similarly-sized iPod audio systems, why hasn’t Altec gotten into the iPod clock radio space?

iM413 is an Altec clock stereo for SanDisk’s Sansa; the company sees iPods’ integrated clocks as smart alternatives

Cramer: We are well aware of the success of some of these clock radio solutions. However, we want to make audio systems, not small electrics. The sonic performance of most of these clock radio units is well below what we would consider an Altec Lansing. Meanwhile, as we said before, keep watching as we do recognize the consumer need. Of course, for our items that are portable like the iM600 one can simply use the iPod which has a built in world clock and alarm function and one can wake to great music from the iM600 too. We note that many consumers may not know that they already have an alarm clock in their iPod that works perfectly with all our docking audio solutions. In any case, design and development is a work of choices as each element costs money and so affects the value of the product. We never want “features” or cosmetics alone to interfere with performance so we trade off. However, if we take a decision to develop a solution for the right need, then we may well have this kind of function in the future on some items.

(13) One of the big themes we saw Altec explore with the inMotion family was the concept of portability—what types of speakers people really wanted to carry around, and how they should be designed for those purposes, like the outdoorsy iM9, the bigger iM7, and the others, which were more small bag-friendly. Now you even have an almost pocket-sized speaker in Orbit-MP3. What sorts of lessons did you learn through releasing products in so many different sizes and shapes—what do people really want?

Budget-priced and streamlined, Orbit-MP3 is Altec’s first pocket speaker for iPod users

Cramer: We have over 70 years as a company of learning about how to satisfy consumer needs and desires. Most of all we have learned that consumers are smarter than we are and so listening to them is what is best. We do this actively and purposefully. As with many things, the consumer’s needs and ideas change and evolve and so we know we must as well. Actually, we are lucky enough to have compliments on all of the types of items we have offered. People need all kinds of solutions and all have individual taste as well. So, we love the Orbit as it certainly meets the needs for super portability and we were able to create big sound from a tiny speaker. At the same time, others want the much bigger and louder solutions we have as well. We suppose the answer to your question is just that, people have various specific ways they like to listen to their music. Everyone has their own unique audio lifestyle. These audio enthusiasts want to have their needs fulfilled, their pains and problems eased and solved, and to be delighted. We are proud to have some hand in developing many of the today’s popular audio solutions.

We’re also very proud to have received this very thorough attention and accolade from iLounge!

iLounge: Thank you for your time.

[Editor’s Note: Staff and other white background images are courtesy Altec Lansing and IDEO. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]

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