Those of us of a certain age can, if we dig deep enough into our memories, recall a time before Spotify, before iTunes, before even Napster — the age of the mixtape. A collection of carefully curated songs, recorded from the radio or reel-to-reel, shared with friends through the intimacy of a face-to-face meeting, the exchange mediated by a physical object. And if Belgian design firm beyond.io has anything to say about it, the mixtape is about to become more than a memory.
X-II (“Twelve”) is a clever hybrid that marries the slower pace and creativity-sparking limitations of the analog age to the connected immediacy of the digital world. Through an iOS app, users curate playlists of up to twelve songs, each paired with a location tag and a digital photo. For a playlist to be shared, it must be downloaded to a X-II tape — really a small Bluetooth beacon, modeled to evoke memories of an audio casette (complete with a toothed plastic “reel” in the center, scavenged from actual casettes).
Since there’s no way to share X-II playlists over a network, the only way to trade music is through the time-honored tradition of meeting a friend in person and handing them a tape, or sending one through the mail. Either way, the flow of new music is slowed down and given a sense of anticipation by the limitations of a real-world transfer. But once a tape is in the hands of its intended recipient, X-II’s design starts to show off the magic that only digital connectivity can provide.
When a user receives a tape and taps their phone to it to access the music, they become part of an exclusive group comprising that tape’s previous (and mostly anonymous) owners. While in possession of the tape, a user has the chance to make their own mark on the curation process by adding one — and only one! — new track, bumping out the oldest track on the list. As each tape changes hands and the music slowly evolves, all of the tape’s former owners receive updates that give them access to the latest additions.
Describing the story and purpose of the project, the team at beyond.io writes that “X-II is not supposed to replace how people now discover and listen to music, but it hopes to provide a worthy alternative to how digital content is usually experienced.” As a blend of the physical with the digital, it’s also a great example of how the Internet of Things can go beyond the typical “smart” products to create new social experiences.
The designers say the X-II tape design and back-end is ready to be scaled up and integrated with a variety of streaming music and photo-sharing service. The project is currently in a private beta, and those who sign up for updates at the X-II website may find that there’s a tape already being circulated nearby.