The next step for the Internet of Things: Less screen, more living

March 10, 2014, 6:03 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Duncan Lamb has a mission. He wants to put a dent in our smartphone addictions and allow us, the screen-obsessed people of the web, to look up from those devices a little more. As a former creative director of Nokia, that’s a slightly confusing mission.

But Lamb is hardly the first to rail against dependance on devices. With new technology like Google Glass, the dystopian future of Wall-E doesn’t seem so far off. A recent Apple advertisement was criticized for showing a couple ignoring each other in lieu of using their smartphones while on vacation. A viral video called “I Forgot My Phone” shows the depressing way smartphones alienate people from making personal connections; it’s been viewed almost 40 million times on YouTube. (Nomophobia is the fear of being out of contact via mobile phone, and apparently 66% of us have it.)

Lamb has applied his philosophy of “less screen, more living” to a project he’s been working on for 18 months, a connected speaker called the Aether Cone. He introduced the product this week.

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Devices from thermostats to fitness bracelets to refrigerators are now “smart,” meaning they have connectivity and can collect and send information across the Internet. The problem, Lamb argues, is that all the heavy computing is still done by software on our phones. With the exception of the Nest thermostat, most smart devices are still relatively dumb hubs for data collection. And so, in order to take advantage of our new smart thermostats and refrigerators, we still spend too much time having to fiddle with our phones to communicate with the devices.

Lamb predicts that there is a coming backlash to controlling our lives with our phones. After all, every time we get our phone out, it’s a chance to see new work emails and other distractions to suck us in. Sometimes we just want to block that noise out and listen to music.

That’s why the Aether Cone is smarter than your average smart device. Sure, it’s beautifully designed and aesthetically pleasing; those are table stakes for a new gadget in 2014. But the Aether Cone’s selling point is that it streams music over Wi-Fi automatically, based on what the speaker’s software thinks you’d like to listen to, with no need to check your phone. The speaker decides what to play based on where it is within your home (it remembers), what time it is, and what you’ve liked and disliked in that time and place in the past.

To be fair, the Aether Cone can’t do all of this without a smartphone dashboard involved somewhere. The initial setup, for instance, requires some smartphone work. Users will need to put in their preferred music services, like Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, Soundcloud, or NPR. (The company is currently working on partnerships with various streaming providers and hasn’t announced any yet.)

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But rather than control the music with an iPhone touchscreen, you touch the speaker. One button turns it on and a gentle twist of the speaker changes the channel to a different, but similar artist. A big twist switches it to a totally different genre. Voice recognition allows you to request a song or artist by name. And it remembers your preferences.

Lamb demoed his highly personalized, smart speaker at an appropriately intimate, out-of-the-way gathering at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin. In the quiet backyard of a boutique hotel, Lamb played a Pavement song for a group of thirty friends. It was a long pedicab ride away from the noisy melee of Downtown Austin. A campfire flickered, and no one pulled out their smartphone.

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