A Music App That Won't Distract Us?

Jan 10, 2018

Michael Stewart, an assistant professor of computer science at James Madison University, hopes his "Colisten" app can help people connect through music, without becoming distracted from day-to-day activities.
Credit Amy Loeffler

Social media apps such as Twitter and Facebook have had a profound effect on the way we relate to one another, and often the very apps meant to help us feel more connected, leave us feeling isolated and distracted from relationships that really matter.  But one JMU professor is developing an app that gets around that problem.  WMRA's Amy Loeffler has the story.

There’s no denying the ubiquity of social media apps in our lives, and it’s safe to say that gone are the giddy days when posting something to Facebook or sending out a tweet seemed like an innovative, convenient, and carefree way to connect with friends and family.  At James Madison University, assistant professor of computer science Michael Stewart still has hope that technology can bring us together.

MICHAEL STEWART: There’s a sort of popular criticism that we are connecting to remote people that we care about in pretty superficial ways at the expense of more meaningful interactions with those who are co-present or somehow local to us. And, so I think we can all think of instances in our lives when we’ve seen this play out.  And so I am really trying to see what other ways can technology help us to feel together with each other that maybe doesn’t have to result in this trade off.

Stewart’s current research is an extension of the dissertation work he began at Virginia Tech’s Center for Human Computer Interaction.  He called the project “Colisten” because he wanted the name to mean “doing something together,” and convey sharing an experience.  It’s also a unique word that will be more easily accessed by search engines.

STEWART: In Colisten the idea is very simple. I’ve created a streaming music player much like any other streaming music player you may have, you have your play list you can listen to your songs, whatever.  The only difference is that in Colisten not only can I see my playlist there but I can see people who have told Colisten are my friends, and they have confirmed this, and so then whenever I go to listen my playlist for working out, you know, I’m listening to my energetic music and I’m running in the gym and then some friend of mine elsewhere in the world, let’s call him Steve, Steve’s  doing whatever he’s doing at the same moment of the same song as me and he can follow along with whatever I’m listening to.  Importantly, we do not take turns choosing songs, we do not vote on who is the better DJ, we don’t have to get the most points for listening to the most songs.  Really the intention is just to know that we are listening to the same music at the same time and to continue on with whatever it is that we are doing in our lives.   I can click on some playlist, to listen to for example the “Nebraska” movie soundtrack….

Here, Stewart demos the Colisten app…

STEWART:  … and my friend Emily could listen to her own playlist.  She has whatever else.  She’s got Christmas, “Good Clean Fun,” whatever she might listen to.  And then she can also see that her friend Michael is online, and she can actually click to listen with him.  And when she does so, she’ll be at the same moment more or less in the same song…

[Colisten app plays….]

STEWART:  And so then, as the playlist proceeds, they’ll both continue on to be in the same track.  And so the idea here is again another kind of, sort of paradox.  Can we feel connected and sort of together with another person just from knowing that we are listening to the same music without somehow becoming then distracted and solely paying attention to this ideally background activity?

Stewart hopes to continue research on the Colisten project and to better understand how technology can support people in "being together” in ways that are more subtle and perhaps meaningful than the current intrusive platforms that permeate our everyday lives. Eventually he would like to release an Android version of the Colisten app.