Sometimes novel designs are not good ones, but have enough “wow” factor to create desirability in those who aren’t thinking it through. I’ll put this Elbow portable cassette player concept in this category. Designed to reduce a Walkman to the barest minimum, it consists of a biaxial arm and provides what initially looks to be a satisfying way to interface with and manipulate a cassette.
The first axis of the arm allows the user to clasp it shut, inserting a spindle into one of the cassette’s gears. The device is then rotated so that the magnetic head can read the tape.
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Controls are provided by a single dial which regulates the volume, play, and fast forward functions.
Seems nifty, doesn’t it? But we see several problems that actually make this design a step backwards from Sony’s venerated Walkman. First off is the problem of directionality/orientation. Cassettes have two sides, and the user selects which side of the tape they’d like to listen to. With the Walkman and every other cassette player, this problem is solved in an obvious way: The desired side of the cassette faces outwards.
With the design of the Elbow, “outwards” is presumably the side with the dial on it. But the user is presented with one spindle and two cassette eyes that it could possibly be inserted into. Because the motor only rotates in one direction (there is no rewind functionality), the user must insert it into the correct hole, or risk unspooling the tape on one reel without the slack being taken up by the other reel. So right away, we’ve got the potential for operator error.
The second, more glaring problem is that the device appears to have been designed to make a neat photograph, rather than considering how the user will actually interact with it. Here’s what we mean:
Is the Elbow meant to be held in one’s hand for the entirety of the listening session? Or thrown in a bag? Either way the design, which leaves parts of the cassette exposed, presents a problem. Walkmen, while in use, were either held in the hand (while jogging, for instance), thrown into a jacket pocket, clipped to one’s belt or thrown into a bag. In all four of those scenarios, both eyes of the cassette and the exposed portion of the tape are completely enclosed by the Walkman; there is no danger that the user’s sweaty grip, or debris in a pocket or bag, will interfere with the tape or the cassette’s eyes. The relatively smooth outer shape of a Walkman also provided no sharp surfaces or undercuts which could snag on something. Those positive qualities are absent on the Elbow.
Nevertheless, we’ll probably continue to see these images being eagerly forwarded on social media, with folks proclaiming it a neat design. I suppose it is neat. It’s just not practical nor user-friendly.