Imagine what it must have been like at the turn of the 20th century when a family first welcomed a phonograph or gramophone into their home. For the first time in human history, music from the world’s greatest artists was available on demand. Rather than having to go somewhere to a grand opera house, you were able to summon stars like Enrico Caruso to sing in your house just for you at any time of the day or night. It was magical.
And more was to come. After World War I, radio appeared, bringing not only music to your home, but also news and a wide variety of entertainment from all over the world. It couldn’t be better than this, could it?
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But the technology has continued to work wonders. In June 1948, we got the long-lasting 33 1/3 RPM album, which allowed the listener at home to enjoy up to 22 minutes of uninterrupted music by the best in the world. FM radio, with its high fidelity signal, began to spread in the 1950s, followed by the craze for high-end home audio equipment. This was followed in no time by the 8-track and cassette (personal music on the go, including the car!), Which were replaced by the compact disc, high-tech plastic circles that promised perfect sound for always. At this point, we were confident that we had achieved the highest possible level of quality and convenience when it comes to music consumption.
Then the digital age really hit in the 1990s, thanks to the Internet. When Napster and their ilk arrived in 1999, we suddenly had access to all the music we wanted anytime of the day AND FOR FREE! If we wanted to be a little more scrupulous, there was always the iTunes Music Store, which offered cheap legal downloads from a library that grew daily. And all of those digital files can either be burned to an in-car CD-R or loaded into a portable device that never skips no matter how much you shake it. (I remember dazzling my neighbor with an RCA Lyra that could hold – gasp! – an hour of songs!)
When the iPod Classic with its 160 GB hard drive appeared, it was possible to carry around 40,000 songs in a package smaller than a deck of cards. How could it be better than that?
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Yet he did. As people grabbed the iPod Classics in 2009, a new thing called streaming was gaining momentum. These new companies, starting with Rhapsody in 2001 and exploding with Spotify’s debut in 2008, promised access to millions, then tens of millions of songs, for next to nothing. Do you have a song in mind? As long as you have an internet connection, you can listen in seconds.
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What we have now was science fiction 20 years ago. In fact, we now take it for granted that we can listen to any music created by mankind – around 75 million songs and more – anytime, anywhere, on any device we have. at this moment. We have finally reached the pinnacle of music consumption.
Where do we have? What could possibly happen after streaming? Suppose foolishly.
Scientists and engineers are already working to eliminate the need to carry headphones or earphones. Imagine for a moment that you could have a small device the size of a decorative nail installed right behind your ear in, say, a tattoo parlor, the same way you could get your ears pierced. Using the principles of bone conduction – something that’s already a reality in military-grade helmets and commercially available headphones – the audio is transmitted directly into your skull from a device in your pocket. You hear the sound (music, a phone call, whatever) but because your ears are otherwise unoccupied, you also clearly hear what is going on in the world around you.
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The next step would be to completely abandon the need for any kind of external device. Could we be transformed into traveling antennas? Or how about having our own personal algorithmic editor always on – a concept that has already been explored in a number of sci-fi novels – which will serve as content based on how we feel or (dare I say ) think? I wouldn’t count it. In fact, Spotify is already moving in that direction with its mood analysis patents.
Elon Musk has a company called Neuralink that explores brain-computer interfaces – implants, in other words. A device the size of a coin, designed to be implanted in the skull a few millimeters from the brain, is being tested. Musk sees these implants as solutions to various types of medical problems, but how do you say they couldn’t be used as receivers for audio entertainment?
Fine. But what about visual entertainment? I wouldn’t rely on smart glasses. Google Glass was interesting but failed to convince consumers for a variety of reasons, but its Enterprise Edition has found its way into some workplaces where hands-free activity is important. The company is doing a lot of R&D in this space in anticipation of competition from Apple, which is working on its own eyewear-type wearable device that could hit the market next year.
If such glasses are accepted by the public, be careful. Video entertainment, augmented reality, virtual reality, live streaming and gaming, all hands-free and 100% portable, will be everywhere. Combine that with an external device (or better yet, an implant) and the possibilities are endless.
Do you think we are now zombies roaming around in our little audio bubbles? Hold on.
Scary or cool? Either way, the future is on the way.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
Subscribe to the Alan podcast on the current history of new music now on Apple Podcast or Google Play
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