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Janus Friis’ Next Act Is A Hardware Startup Called Aether, And A “Thinking” Music Player Called Cone

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Janus Friis made his name founding a series of disruptive software startups such as Skype, Rdio, Joost and (much earlier) KaZaA — some more successful than others.

Now the Danish entrepreneur is moving into new territory: a hardware startup called Aether (formerly known by its in-stealth working title, The Morse Project) which today is debuting its first product, a 6.3-inch high, megaphone-esque wireless music player called Cone that you can operate with your hand using a dial, your voice, and an app.

Cone will sell for $399 and be available first in North America starting Summer 2014, with a wider rollout to come later. The devices are being sold direct from Aether’s site, with the company working on expanding to other sales channels.

Cone draws on music from streaming music platforms, along with Internet radio stations and potentially other sources, and the aim is to be as inclusive as possible. For this launch, Friis’ earlier venture Rdio will be among the early integrations, “but we are in talks with several others,” says Aether co-founder and chief product officer Duncan Lamb (who worked with Friis at Skype and also spent years at Nokia).

For an entrepreneur who has had many hits in the world of software, why the shift to hardware — a notoriously difficult and capital-intensive space? And why music, where we have plenty of huge consumer electronics companies and smaller upstarts like Sonos already playing? Lamb says the move was borne out of frustration with what is on the market today:

“We looked at all the innovations in AI, with things like IBM’s Watson playing Jeapordy, but at the same time when it comes to consumers, we still have to tell our computers what we want them to do. And a lot of the “smart” electronics out there today still require a lot of effort to get them to work,” he said. “It’s a digital orphanage. We could clearly see the direction that things should go. So we basically set out to solve these kinds of problems by founding a company to make thinking things.”

The idea here is to present “physical objects which live in our everyday lives around but have the ability to think and process the data that is freely available and make decisions and to make this choice and selection in a human way.”

The team of designers and hardware specialists working at Aether — who come from Apple, SGI, Google, NASA, Twitter, Nokia, Motorola, Ideo, Skype, Logitech, Intel, Motorola, Frog and more are starting with a music player, but the intention is to take this to other areas, too, Lamb says.

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Cone is not your average music device: it’s integrated with software that features voice recognition powered by Nuance (integration for which a deal is not yet finalized, but in the works), and you can navigate music on it in three ways: through apps, by turning the hand-sized dial that encloses its speaker, or by saying something out loud.

Lamb describes it as a “thinking” music player, and this is the basic concept behind it: through algorithms, Cone learns what you like to listen to based on whether you linger on a selection or pass it along, and then starts applying customized selections based on what time of day it is and where your Cone is located.

The longer term picture, Lamb tells me, is to add more functionality to Cone over time. “Cone is very well specced,” he told me (a full list of those specs below). “As a startup we don’t have the capacity to use some of that right now, but we wanted to build it so that it doesn’t become immediately obsolete.” Could that include integrating things like voice calls using the microphone? “I wouldn’t rule things out,” he replies.

SIZE & WEIGHT

Height: 6.3 in
Width: 6.3 in
Length: 6 in
Weight: 2.9 lbs

POWER & BATTERY
Built-in rechargeable Lithium ion battery
8 hours of continuous playback

CONNECTIVITY
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
Dual-band (2.4 and 5GHz)

REQUIRED FOR SETUP
Any device running iOS 7+ or Mac OSX 10.9+ “Mavericks”

DETAILS
3” woofer plus dual tweeter design for natural stereo envelopment
SNR Signal-to-noise ratio 106 dB (A-weighted, f = 1 kHz, maximum power at THD < 1%)
ARM Cortex™-A9 1GHz processor
32 bit floating point processing
Power efficient design using advanced class-D amplifier with up to 90% efficiency

Fully digital I2S 2,1 channel 20w audio amplifier
Low-power, three-axis, micromachined accelerometer with 14 bits of resolution
Dynamically changing LED light ring with variable luminosity

Article updated to correct Friis’ nationality and to note that a Nuance deal is still pending.