What if we could transform sound into an explorative experience?
Globe.fm is a tangible design concept that enables users to discover the world through sound in an explorative and playful way. It allows users to find hidden places, return to familiar ones, or simply explore, by listening to real-time ambient noise. The sounds can transport the user to spots they have fond memories of or spark imagination of what a place could be like.
Therefore, the metaphor of a radio is used, both in terms of the physical appearance and its usage. The dynamic nature of live sounds in combination with the possibility to tune into different places allows for an ever-changing explorative experience.
Imagine being transported to the Brazilian rainforest or a Sicilian beach, or evoking memories of your trip to China by zooming into a busy street market in Shanghai.
Globe.fm was developed by students as part of the Sound Design course at the Umeå Institute of Design.
Sound plays a big role in how we perceive the world. Sound helps us understand and connect experiences, trigger memories, impact our mood and spark imagination. We wondered if we could design a product that would let you experience sound in a new way.
Inspired by the term Wanderlust, which can be translated as a strong desire to travel, we explored how we could fulfill people's longing to discover places in an alternative way.
For this reason, we designed Globe.fm, a radio that allows people to experience the world through real-time sound based on the selected location.
Reminiscent of a traditional radio, Globe.fm lets users browse through different sound channels, to find the one that best suits them. Rather than selecting a radio station, Globe.fm lets the user choose a location on the world map. Furthermore, this experience is enriched by the combination of gestural and visual layers that help the user navigate.
Gesture inputs are captured by a sensor-driven, globe-shaped object on the top of the radio. The display of the Globe.fm radio shows a world map on which sounds from all over the world can be found. Using tangible interaction modalities, the user is able to navigate through this world map by moving across the display. Rotating the sphere leads to an x and y movement of the cursor to rotate the globe on the screen.
The display of the radio shows a visualization that includes two layers. A globe view displays the world as a graphical interface in form of a pixel grid. Here, a specific place in the world can be chosen by simply double-tapping the sphere which takes the user to the second layer, the sound map.
The sound map view is an enlarged view of the previously selected area. The user can explore the different location sounds of the area, with each color representing a specific location type, e.g. blue for the sea. For this purpose, the sound map view is visualized as a location-specific color gradient map.
Rethinking familiar objects
We took the opportunity to build on the metaphor of an object that most people are familiar with, the radio. The decision to choose this medium was made mainly out of curiosity. We wondered if we could give new life to the interaction with a radio. We all know how to use a radio and what it looks like, but as technology evolves, radios are being replaced by smartphones or other smart devices.
Tangible interaction is being lost. We were wondering how we could bring back the nostalgic feeling of using a radio while giving the interaction a fresh, playful twist to meet people's current needs.
Facing a global pandemic
Globe.fm addresses the emerging global experience of being confined to one's home. The pandemic has put a shackle on all of our feet and has turned our inner wanderlust into an intrinsic "Fernweh". Fernweh describes the painful longing for distance and is in times like these a mirror for the emotional state of many people who are trapped in the perimeter of their own home. We currently cannot break out of our daily routine, get some distance, tune out or escape, and we still do not know when the situation will be back to the way it used to be.
We were wondering how we can make it possible to experience different places in the world in an alternative way.
Doesn't everyone dream of (un)familiar places somewhere far away?
The rise of ambient sound
In our early research, we found out that many people use ambient sounds while working, for relaxation, or simply to fall asleep. The rise of such apps and playlists is undeniable. In 2020, there was a surge of ambient sounds on Spotify, and other platforms, and a huge audience of people searching for them. Usually, people listen to nature sounds, such as the ocean, a fresh summer breeze, or wind storms. This apparent increase of people with a desire to listen to nature sounds made us curious and we started to make connections between the longing for new places and those ambient sounds.
The process of designing Globe.fm
The decision to design an object which allows people to travel the world through sound did not merely come from our own interest. Ethnographic user research, including interviews and customer journeys, helped us understand what the desires of people are that listen to ambient nature sounds. We learned why, when, and what they are listening to on a regular basis.
After proving our concept, we explored the interaction of this tangible object together with the visualization. Multiple iterations were done to end up with the desired intuitive and playful interaction.
In order to imagine how the user would explore the world through sound, we mapped possible soundscapes to a world map. This helped us narrow down the scope of the sound set we wanted to work with while providing the groundwork for the next step, in which we were exploring tangible user interactions.
We used this product as a chance to rethink commonly used interaction modalities and applying them in an explorative way. A challenge was to find an intuitive solution to navigate through the abstract visual soundscape. The user should be able to perceive affordances without having to consider how to use the object. During various iteration sessions, we build multiple prototypes with different tangible inputs and tested them afterward on several people. While testing, we found out that the sphere input together with the visualization proved to be very intuitive and even playfully encouraged exploration.
Furthermore, we used an Arduino to build several interactive screen prototypes to verify and validate the world view with the control and sound.
Designing for new opportunities
We believe that the power of sound can go beyond what it is commonly utilized for today. We see potential in leveraging sound to create new, multi-layered experiences for the audience. Globe.fm is an example of how sound can be used to fulfill ambiguous desires.