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Interview with X-Series Designers

This is an older interview which was posted on some sites, but I don’t recall seeing it on Engadget or Gizmodo so I am reposting it, it was originally from May 2009.

Uncompromising approach to the basics

The new flagship WALKMAN is finally here, the Sony X-Series. Portable media players are all about listening, watching, and the supporting controls—essential elements that the X series designers approached with great care. Discerning WALKMAN fans will find this gem worth the wait.

Full interview after the break.

Striding past yesterday's WALKMAN

Shiono: Many people say "WALKMAN" when they mean portable audio players in general. It's a Sony brand with the status of a generic noun. To raise the bar, we're always eager to leverage all of Sony's strengths as an audio-visual electronics manufacturer, for the best in sound and image quality.

With advances in digital technology and the spread of networks, people are looking for something new in these devices. We want products that tap into these wireless networks, for example. Watching music video streams, or downloading video podcasts of all kinds of programs. We want to enjoy this wealth of content easily, wherever we go, without being shackled to a computer.

The possibilities are exciting, and this inspired X series development. Wi-Fi web features, a touch-screen panel, an OLED display, and an "S-Master" digital amp. These new technologies and the latest electronic components form the backbone of this player, the flagship WALKMAN with uncompromising enhancements to the basics of portable media players: listening, watching, and the supporting control

A new take on the identity of an old favourite

Shimizu: I managed product design for the X series, and that's what we kept in mind during development. We were determined to refine the basics, but we exercised restraint and good judgment. Just putting an LCD screen on a player the size of a business card would have made it quite forgettable. With minimal elements in our creative palette, it was not easy to make the WALKMAN identity clear. This led me to focus on how the buttons are arranged and how the edges are shaped.

Look closely, and you'll notice that all buttons on the X series are round. We decided to maintain consistency with the three-circle layout introduced in the S series. In that player, there's a rhythm in the arrangement of the trio of round buttons, which look enjoyable and convenient. In the X series as well, the Home button and Hold switch, the audio controls on top—all of these remind us of the three-circle layout. You might think that because there's a touch-screen panel, we could eliminate these buttons. Having physical buttons offers some advantages, though. Controlling audio playback while browsing the web or viewing photos. Controlling the player by touch in your pocket while standing during a crowded commute. In this way, the three buttons not only represent WALKMAN style, they improve usability. You might find the Hold switch especially easy and enjoyable to use, because we were careful about the position, size, and clicking response of this part.

There's another common thread in recent WALKMAN series design. What makes the previous S series look slim and light is how the edge around the body is shaped. We build on this thinking in the X series, but instead of simply recreating the S series edge shape, we made the corners squarer and the edge bolder by offsetting the seam. The prominent edge contributes to an image unlike the friendly S series. It looks more serious, which seems fitting for the flagship WALKMAN.

One-of-a-kind finishes
Shimizu: Even after our direction in product design had become clear, we were still looking for the best body finishes. Typical black or silver styling can't really express the qualities people value in a top-of-the-line WALKMAN, or their appreciation for what's genuine. Fortunately, there's a team at Sony dedicated to color and material development. One of their proposals caught our eye as unique.

That's the granite-like finish available in the X series, called "wrinkle coat." The crackled pattern comes from heating this special coating. No two patterns are the same. And no portable audio players have offered this sense of premium quality, the distinctive appearance and texture of a cut mineral. Repeated attempts to perfect the coating paid off, and the finish looks and feels unique.

The protective case also reflects our dedication to superior quality. No two grains are alike, as you would expect from genuine leather. Owners will also appreciate how the case develops character over years of use, something synthetic leather can't seem to match. With operations on the new touch-screen panel in mind, we wanted to present the player as an elegant notebook. For this, we had to develop a suitable holder, but because natural rubber would obviously stretch and become loose over time, the player is held by special elastic fabric also found in apparel.

Niijima: Because it's the first WALKMAN with a touch-screen panel, we developed an entirely new graphical user interface. In design, we were guided by the themes of three circles and transparency.

The trio of round buttons has become closely associated with WALKMAN style, and this was our attempt to recreate it in graphics. Play a video or view photos, and you'll notice the round control buttons.

Transparent GUI elements let visual content shine through, so to speak. You'd imagine that a three-inch OLED display gives us an ample canvas for controls. In fact, we face strict limitations in the size of icons and on-screen buttons, considering the width of people's fingers, the precision of detection, and other factors. That's why we balanced button size with transparency, which reveals the background or wallpaper. As a result, buttons are easier to press and content is easier to see.

One problem with touch-screen interfaces to date has been that buttons tend to be hidden by your finger when you hold your finger over them. You don't know what button you're pressing. On the X series, when you bring your finger over a button, the button edges glow orange, as feedback for the action. Move your finger away, and this sign of your action gradually fades, as a trace of your selection that is understood intuitively.

The excitement of discovering new content

Asai: One new feature exclusively in the X series is Related Links. This is an original feature developed by Sony, supporting searches on a video-sharing site and search engine.

Suppose you're listening to a particular track. Press the button on the user interface, and the artist name, album name, or track name will be automatically applied to the search screen. Without entering anything, you can instantly find out more about it online. It's an easy way to explore content.

Until now, you'd have to go to your computer and manually search whenever you wanted to learn more about content. Search from your mobile phone, and you'd still need to enter keywords. But because this is inconvenient, I'm sure it has discouraged many of us from finding more information. And that's unfortunate, because we miss the chance to discover new content. The link button on X series players eliminates this problem. It introduces you to new content and encourages discovery.
In fact, this feature emerged from a designer-initiated study some time ago. We looked into touch-panel usability, network features, and other possibilities. We had always wanted to implement it. It's a perfect match for the latest technology in the X series.

No stopping WALKMAN innovation

Shimizu: To me, WALKMAN players are simply tools for enjoying music. They meet a familiar need, yet it's difficult to design the perfect player. If there's anything even slightly distracting, anything that affects audio quality, a player just doesn't meet our expectations of the WALKMAN name. From my own experience with the X series, I'm convinced that we cleared this hurdle easily.

Shiono: The WALKMAN line will keep evolving, over time. We will continue to introduce players designed especially for listening, and players that reinterpret the listening experience. There are many possibilities in store. Still, I hope the Walkman design DNA never changes. It should always be amazing and exciting to enjoy listening to what you want to hear, whenever and wherever you want to hear it—and that's something Sony pioneered in outdoor listening. The exceptional sound and image quality only available from an audio-visual electronics manufacturer. The X series introduces wireless networking features, but it remains a reassuring example of these traditional WALKMAN ideals.


  1. I really like that silver X. Was that ever sold or is that concept only?

  2. both the silver and red X were sold in japan only and there still might be some on ebay or at some retailors in japan, the models also lack english language support


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