Aside from the expected holiday iPod refresh this week, Apple made a splash by releasing iTunes 8 with a significant new "Genius" feature. iTunes' supposed IQ injection can analyze the music in one's library, then automatically build playlists similar to a song, or even recommend more music from the iTunes Store. Already, though, Genius has sparked a number of discussions around how accurate the technology really is, and how it is actually recommending music that one already owns. Ars Technica spent some more time with Genius to see how smart it really is.
Can Hal rock out?
In our hands-on with iTunes 8's new features yesterday, we noted that, at first glance, Genius seemed like a clever automated music finder. It's about as simple as can be, too: just select a song with a mood or a beat you like, hit the new Genius button in the lower right, and iTunes immediately builds a playlist of similar music from the rest of your library, using the collective knowledge of the iTunes Store cloud. Users can choose to populate the list with anywhere from 25 to 100 songs, save the playlist perpetually, or even plug it into iTunes' Party Shuffle feature to keep the good times flowing with the same mood.
A second component to Genius is called the Genius Sidebar, which suggests similar music from the iTunes Store that a customer doesn't own yet. Using the Genius technology to analyze the actual music and make more accurate recommendations from the store, the Genius Sidebar acts as a personal shopper that, over time, should get to know users' listening habits to make suggestions that go much deeper than the bland standard of watching what other users simply buy.
If you're a Pandora user experiencing some deja vu, don't worry; these Genius features share much of the same concept, only Apple applied them to one's own music library and tracks one could purchase from the iTunes Store. After the Ars staff has collectively spent more time with Genius, though, we've noticed a few fundamental problems that could soon mar the experience before Genius has a chance to catch on with the masses if Apple doesn't tend to them soon.
One of Genius' most obvious and frequent faults when working with one's own library is that it appears to be only as insightful as the iTunes Store's catalog is thick. For some users, particularly those whose catalogs lean more towards the indie scene, clicking the Genius button to build a playlist is an exercise in futility. After some experimentation, it appears that if the iTunes Store doesn't carry—or possibly even recognize from any of the readily available CDDB services—a song you try to use Genius on, it throws an error and can't build the playlist. We even got it on songs like "Get up! Go Insane!" from Fatboy Slim, and "Where the Streets Have No Name" from U2, songs from very well-known artists that were both ripped from CDs using iTunes and subsequently populated with metadata from CDDB.
Other quirks when matching up library music with recommendations from the iTunes Store are strange in their own right, but more forgivable since Genius is at such an infant stage. Tycho's "From Home," a very low-key electronic track for chilling out, got paired with Dusty Kid's "I Love Richie," a far more upbeat dance track. Genius also recommended The White Stripes' "Well It's True That We Love One Another" for Radiohead's "A Wolf At The Door."
Genius can certainly do better with certain genres and periods, though. Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" brought recommendations of The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Simon & Garfunkel, though Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" brought everything from Tom Petty, Sarah McLachlan, Eagles, and even Bryan Adams.
Selling ice to an eskimo
Surveying the other half of Genius' duties, the iTunes Store recommendations can sometimes be all over the map, and they all-too-often suggest songs that are already in one's library. Admittedly, Apple stated that Genius will improve with time as users actually put the technology through its paces and help flesh out the recommendation engine. But this problem of recommending music that one already owns could shoot the technology in its own foot, and tarnish the otherwise pleasant and seamless iTunes Store shopping experience.
As a couple of Ars staffers, and other reports across the web, confirm, Genius appears to have have trouble with libraries that contain a lot of music ripped from CDs, and especially when live concerts and alternative compilations are involved. Phish' "The Divided Sky," for example, recommended "The Lizards" from a live show in the iTunes Store, even though we already owned a Phish song called "The Lizards" from a different live show that was ripped and tagged with iTunes.
Sitting in the corner
These kinds of mixed up recommendations not only become frustrating, but they force us to second-guess our knowledge of our own library and do a lot of busywork to check whether we in fact need a song that was recommended, or simply haven't kicked back in a while with an old gem we already own. Add on the fact that the Genius Sidebar constantly displays iTunes Store recommendations (unless you toggle it off, of course), with way-too-convenient buttons for previewing and purchasing without having to flip over to the store, and the problems that these double-recommendations present are compounded.
Admittedly, Genius is a 1.0, and Apple has proven persistent when it comes to tweaking the iTunes experience. The rampant success of similar music-analysis projects like Pandora, and sheer amount of chatter about Genius since its introduction, shows that there is an obvious interest in automated systems that can get to know our music libraries better than we do. For the time being, though, Genius won't be near the top of the class until some more polish is applied and Apple can do something about all the false positives.Posted on