The Treehouse + The Cave

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Dissatisfaction Sows Innovation

It's probably pretty obvious at this point that I'm a huge fan of digital music. I love what it's done to the amount of music I can experience. I love what it's done to the portability of music. I love what it's done to the distribution of music. I love that it has decimated the economies of scale, and that now more than ever, self-publishing is a model that actually works for the young musician.

What I hate about digital music is that it has killed the concept of cover art.

As much as I love metadata, I just don't get as much satisfaction scrolling through 10,000 songs as I did flipping through 100 cracked CDs (let alone a couple hundred dusty LPs). I miss thinking about how the album cover interacted with the songs (Mike Kelley's cover for Dirty always held my attention). I miss thinking about how one artist was riffing on another. But most of all, I miss not having to process so much descriptive text.

Images have the ability to convey a lot of information very quickly. In addition, I would argue that images have a larger inherent capacity to instantly and simultaneously jog one's factual and emotional memories than does text.

Which means, at least for people like me, that regaining a visual way to browse our music libraries would provide us with a faster, more artistically complex and more emotionally potent way to experience our collections.

With this in mind, I propose Visual Browsing in iTunes, a plug-in or eventual feature of iTunes that I've fully conceptualized and sketched (with the help of my brother), but have no hope of programming (though he says he knows some folks):

Visual Browsing in iTunes

Visual Browsing 3

I had been thinking about the best way to visually cruise through my MP3s for years, but until a few months ago, none of them felt right.

Then I saw screenshots of the interface Apple had developed for multi-person video conferencing within the upcoming version of iChat AV.

iChat AV 2

I'll include Apple's description, though I think the image says it all:

In its three-dimensional view, your buddies seem more like they're in the room with you, making it easier to follow the conversation. Their images are even reflected in front of them, just as if they were sitting around a conference-room table. It's an organized visual arrangement that facilitates communication.

The choices they had made seemed so smart.

Not only does it convey more information in the less space, it makes the information presented easier to understand. Additionally amazing, this natural and subtle visual trick requires a minimal amount of processing, as it employs 2D effects to create the illusion of a 3D space. It doesn't take a supercomputer to generate a few gradients and skew/mirror a few images.

A soon as I had absorbed the image above, this image popped into my head:

Visual Browsing 1
Please view the full image as well.

I thought their implementation would work perfectly if applied to my Visual Browsing problem.

Like paper cards flipping within a bar jukebox, I pictured each cover flipping in and out of the illuminated center position, revealing the subsequent album/song as the user browsed through the current library (via the linear scroll-bar detailed below). The faster you scrolled, the faster the covers would shuffle in and out of the spotlight.

Visual Browsing 5

After you had located the record you wanted, you could simply click on it, and the familiar iTunes Browse View would slide up from the bottom edge of the window (much like the Cover Art Window does currently) allowing you to select a song to play.

Visual Browsing 4
Please view the full image as well.

Like LPs in a bin, you could see which records you had just passed and which ones you'd get to in a minute. You could flip past lousy records the second you recognized that tell-tale graphic element on the edge of the sleeve.

Like LPs in a bin, cover art displayed within an interface like this feels far more like a "real" object than identical cover art displayed as a flat graphic (the way iTunes does currently).

In other words, the cover image isn't a feature of the album/song, the image is the album/song and consequently the cover is the music. It becomes a true signifier as opposed to a decoration. Music and its consumption by humanity haven't always been just about the waveform. Let's restore some of the elements that were created both to satisfy our non-aural senses, and to be signifiers for Music itself.

Visual Browsing is a start.

Anonymous thought:

Thought you might be interested - I hacked together a quick implementation of this. You checked your gmail account recently?

2/8/2005 07:42:05 AM - Comment Permalink  
Daniel J. Wilson thought:

Nice idea! I've been thinking of doing something with visual album browsing for a while, but your idea looks better than what I had in mind.

One application that you might be somewhat interested in is mp3voodoo. It hasn't been updated for over 2 years, but you might see something you could adapt to your concept.

2/17/2005 02:33:28 AM - Comment Permalink  

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