Carl Pei's Nothing has finally taken the wraps off a concept for the company’s wireless earbuds. Teased over the weekend, the "Design Concept 1" takes AirPods and strips them down to more raw materials. I love it.
While not exactly nothing, the Design Concept 1 is a "first expression of our design principles, starting with transparency that embodies our commitment to bringing technology closer to people" said Pei. Nothing's replaced solid-colored plastics with a transparent design that lets you see all of the interior circuitry. It's very Teenage Engineering, which is known for its exposed components, and a throwback of sorts to iconic gadgets like the original iMac, Game Boy Color, and Harman Kardon speakers that let you see the insides.
Pei on Nothing's design principles and the Design Concept 1:
We envision a future where technology is so advanced and seamlessly integrated into our lives that it feels like nothing, yet is everywhere. No screens, no dedicated devices, just barely-noticeable technology that empowers us to be more human.
This is our long-term vision. In the near to mid-term, we have to start with existing product categories and interpret them through our lens.
Nothing told Input Teenage Engineering’s Tom Howard and head of design for the company is the mastermind behind the Design Concept 1. As the name implies, this is a concept of Nothing’s wireless earbuds; the final design may sport similar design elements like the transparent construction and natural shapes, but “will look different” according to a spokesperson. A fascinating nugget: Pei says the Design Concept 1 was inspired by a “grandmother’s tobacco pipe.” It’s a very strange product to take inspiration from; I wouldn’t read too much into any relationship between smoking and wireless earbuds. It’s simply a shape Nothing landed on and liked.
Apple mantra — Pei, an admirer of Apple and Steve Jobs, describes Nothing's design philosophy as surely as if it came from Cupertino. With the Concept 1, he uses vocabulary such as "weightless," "effortless," and "timeless" to describe their North Star.
It’s classic Pei, but also very inspired by design principles established by Jobs and former chief design officer Jony Ive. Pei says its products won’t have any unnecessary branding; form must follow function with “intuitive, obvious, and natural” user experiences that simplify technology. Sounds very Apple-esque indeed.
Software is a mystery — Design Concept 1 looks hot. Getting Teenage Engineering to design the hardware was a smart move. Even as a concept, the earbuds already look distinct from the million others available. But what about the software? Delightful hardware is often handicapped by half-baked software and in today's connected world, the latter needs to nail it. The reason AirPods are so successful isn't necessarily the sound quality (AirPods Pro and Max are terrific, but the regular AirPods are pretty average sounding), but for their software integration with iOS. Open the AirPods case next to an iPhone and it immediately pairs and switching between iOS devices and Macs is stupid easy.
Having built OnePlus, I've no doubt Pei is aware of the importance of software integration. However, he told The Verge that Nothing will get most of its revenue from hardware.
"We haven’t spent too much time thinking about the software portion of it," Pei said. "It definitely needs to be a good user experience if you are to generate revenue from software."
One thing worth pondering: How are you going to control Nothing’s wireless earbuds? Based on Nothing’s mission, it would be natural to expect the interface to be as little as possible to get to the point of invisibility that Pei and company are envisioning. Does that mean a voice-only control interface? Is Nothing trying to realize the assistant-based computer as imagined in Her? Or will Nothing have to concede and add touch controls of some sort?
Moving fast — Pei, who was the co-founder of OnePlus, is an expert at building a hype cycle around new products. Similar to the early days of OnePlus, Nothing is moving at the speed of light.
Nothing was announced in January and Pei has plans to release the company's first products within the first half of 2021. The timeline is extremely aggressive, but if you know Pei, that's the pace at which he moves and builds things. His audiences love living on the bleeding edge with him.