Archive for the ‘radio’ Category

DAB = FM + 1 : is that bad or good?


"Four Ashes" by timo_w2s

On the way back from Chris‘ if:book salon last Monday I was listening to the Guardian Media podcast about the failure of Channel 4’s DAB stations. The whole podcast was odd. Firstly the presenters gloated. Why? I’m not sure any of the traditional news media are safe from future technological developments so it seemed strange to have newspaper journalists gloating about a radio station’s demise. Then there was the tone of the interview with the head of Channel 4, Andy Duncan. The interviewer’s tone suggested that Duncan had started up, staffed, and then closed the station out of malice and stupidity. What? Clearly launching a radio channel with original content whose quality might compete with the BBC is a brave thing to do, but it was done in good faith, with the expectation of a market. ‘Malice’ came from the idea that Duncan was being spiteful by shutting down the venture when a few people were working out their notice at the BBC as they had been offered jobs in the Channel 4 channel. It is sad if people loose their jobs, and there is too much of it about this year, but Duncan had a commercial decision to make, what else could he have done?

But it was the foretelling of the demise of DAB that I found strangest. The team pointed out that there was only one commercial national DAB channel that one couldn’t pick up on FM: Planet Rock. They went on to complain that the BBC were holding up a technology that was failing commercially. Surely the BBC is pushing a technology that we asked them to help with. The government pushed DAB so that, if needed, we could free up VHF spectrum for other services. Without the BBC’s amazing efforts this would not be possible at all. There are several national BBC DAB radio channels that you cannot get on FM, Asian Network, BBC Extra, BBC 7, and my favourite 6Music (Tom Robinson’s show’s fantastic). But surely even just looking at commercial radio the failure would be if there were fewer national stations on DAB than on FM? One more is not a failure.

Finally the Guardian team wrapped up by pointing out that DAB was doomed the moment that the BBC released its iPlayer. At first I thought this was a revelation: of course the iPlayer over the internet trumps DAB. It’s got all the channels (plus Radio 4 long-wave stuff) and the ability to listen again. What I should have spotted at once, since I was on a train from London to Cambridge, was that the internet is not available in many of the places that we enjoy listening to radio. Even Guardian journalists must drive through areas that are not covered by wi-fi, how does their iPlayer work then?

“Who Needs Spectrum?” What users want, what’s becoming available and technologies that will make a difference


Machiavelli from Ofcom

Yesterday I went to an event called “Who Needs Spectrum?” What users want, what’s becoming available and technologies that will make a difference organised jointly by Cambridge Wireless and the Digital Communications Knowledge Transfer Network at The Møller Centre in Churchill College. There were lots of interesting talks, especially around harmonisation and regulation. I’m not a radio frequency expert, I’m more interested in the user scenarios radio spectrum enables, so I came away with an outsider’s view of some of the discussions.

It was initially surprising how the battle lines were drawn in the debate around harmonization. On the one hand there were those who felt governments should step in and regulate the technologies that were allowed in different spectrum bands to obtain harmonisation across Europe; while on the other hand there were those who thought that the market should be left unfettered to decide for itself. That divide isn’t surprising. What floored me was who was on which side. The government (Ofcom) wanted to keep as light a touch as possible so that the market was given free reign. The industrialists wanted heavy handed intervention. This was strange to the point that the (excellent) speaker from Ofcom (William Webb, who Richard had once as a visitor to the lab) put up a slide as a homage to Machiavelli! Luckily I lived through the Thatcher years so nothing phases me 😉 As the discussion progressed I did start to work out why the protagonists had chosen the sides that they had. William paraphrased this Machiavelli quote:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

So, the current market incumbents want increased regulation as it ensures their markets and allows them to more easily build pan European services. But Ofcom want to ensure that the market itself decides since they feel new entrants are more likely to be able to innovate new services under a lighter regime, new entrants who wont have a voice currently, either because they are too small to dedicate time to lobbying, too cautious to reveal their game-plan to their competitors, or because they just don’t realise that regulators are looking for consultation.

Another interesting point William made was around license exempt spectrum and innovation. We’ve argued that leaving portions of the radio frequency spectrum unlicensed will encourage innovation and new markets will emerge, as happened with wifi. William agreed that there was innovation in unlicensed spectrum, but argued that there was no evidence that there is more innovation in unlicensed spectrum. William argued that just because an industry is old it doesn’t mean it wasn’t innovative, and so licensed spectrum is littered with innovative services. William went further and argued that the value generated by services in licensed spectrum is actually greater than that generated in unlicensed. I can’t wait to sit down with more economically minded colleagues than I and work these issues through.

The event closed with John Burns from Aegis Systems talking about spectrum use in the public sector. Spectrum ownership by the military is seen as an under utilized national resource, which is true, but John did a great job of showing us what parts of the spectrum are in use and he explained why technologies like radar need seemingly extravagant swathes of spectrum in order to work properly.

My Notes from “Who Needs Spectrum?” What users want, what’s becoming available and technologies that will make a difference

I’ve put my photos up on flickr, and the slides should go up on the Cambridge Wireless site.

There were other issues that struck me during the day. One was the mismatch between my expectation of what would be discussed and what actually was. Looking at the subtitle for the event “what users want, what’s becoming available and technologies that will make a difference” I’d expected lots of time to be spent discussing users, by which I meant consumers of spectrum enabled services. But that’s not what “users” meant. For this audience the users were service providers, broadcasters and cellular operators who ‘use’ spectrum to provide services to consumers. I guess I should have spotted something was awry when, in an event of over 60 delegates I was the only one wearing jeans! As Dorothy might say “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Redmond anymore”.

You can say "social" on the radio


“What a radio looks like, 2” from genmon

A few years back we were doing a project (zCast) looking at novel uses of radio spectrum to deliver datacast content to mobile devices. One of the things that struck me was the incredible amount of innovation and excitement in the radio industry at present. That excitement spills over into other disciplines who are using the radio as a metaphor in creative ways. On an aborted work blog for our team Anab wrote a post looking at some of the results of the Radio Project given to interaction design students at the RCA. Similarly, one of the treats on Richard and my recent trip up to the School of Design at Dundee was the fun “single station radios” that last year’s students had designed, including a Radio 3 radio shaped like the scroll of a violin.

Meany of these designs use the radio as a thought piece. A great quote along those lines was that tuning a radio dial is a useful analogy for browsing the web. (NB I cannot remember the exact quote, nor who made it [Bill Buxton, Clay Shirky, no, not either of them, who???])

BBC Research and other innovative BBC groups are another excellent place for novel radio uses. This isn’t ‘radio as metaphor’, this is innovating radio listening itself. Take Tristan Ferne and Tom Coates et al’s Annotatable Audio (later renamed Find Listen Label). The idea is that the playback of a radio programme is enhanced by the addition of a wiki, whereby listeners can annotate sections of the programme. One imagines users different interests (particular topics, particular voice actors, etc) leading to multi-facetted rich annotations. As with Wikipedia some users might be good at starting a topic, while others might be good at making sure the segment boundaries are accurately described. Sadly it’s an archived prototype, rather than something we can use, though I guess the BBC’s listen again feature is only available for seven days whereas Find Listen Label would clearly work best with more permanent collections. Since stumbling across this work on Tom’s blog I’ve been hoping that I’ll get some flash of inspiration about how to build on this work – perhaps as some mobile media tagging prototype.

Another side of making radio more explicitly social is to share what you are listening to with your friends – either the music itself (a la Three Degrees or iTrip) or share the fact that you are listening (a la Last FM or any ‘listening to’ tag line on a blog). This isn’t a clear-cut good idea. Back in 2003 I did a study of a prototype I’d built called Media Center Buddies. The idea was to explore what it was like to merge instant messaging with TV viewing. I built a ‘working’ prototype (well it worked enough for short bursts in our usability labs) and recruited 32 participants to come and try it out. We recruited 16 heavy IM users and got them to bring a close friend. I wanted participants doubled up with friends. It bothers me when technological studies of TV use ignore the fact that TV is often viewed socially, and this seems especially problematic for social software since if several people are interacting in the same room it’s not clear whose buddies the system should connect to. I won’t go into the results here (I presented them at NordiCHI  2004 and am working on a book chapter version) but as in any user study there were unexpected results. One was about sharing what you are watching with friends and family. My prototype didn’t include that feature, but I had mocked up a screen-shot showing a buddy-list resplendent with details of what buddies were watching. During the discussion phase I’d ask my participants what they felt about the idea: would they like to know what their buddies were watching and would they like their buddies to know what they were watching. Everyone wanted to know what their buddies were watching, but the other question divided on gender. All my women participants (about 15 people) felt it was a great idea while all my men participant (about 17 people) felt it was an awful idea. When I probed them as to why it was bad the answers that occurred more than once were “I don’t want my mom to know I’m watching porn” and “I don’t want my friends to know I’m watching Martha Stewart”. It’s tempting to think that this split results in differences between men and women’s viewing habits, and indeed that is probably most of the reason, but interestingly one of my women participants made a point of saying that she watched a lot of pornography. I wondered if another contributing difference was that men were more likely than women to watch things that they were ashamed of. You see a similar (though reversed) split in the sociological literature about alcoholism. It affects men and women but men’s drinking is often public, while women’s is (was?) often private. Interesting though this line of enquiry into the privacy of viewing habits was, it didn’t seem very useful for Microsoft so I haven’t followed it up. But one of my take-aways was that a service which offered the sharing of information about current viewing between buddies would work best if it was targeted at women.

“Three units looking left” from Schulze

But what about radio? Certainly the kind of issue I found with video shouldn’t affect radio. Sure, I might be embarrassed that I occasionally enjoy BBC Radio 2 but it’s not as strong – I’m not ashamed. Likewise for Last FM, it does bother me a bit that my listening becomes a visible part of my web identity (and it bothers me a lot that Last FM misses all my BBC iPlayer listening) but the pros outweigh the cons. Enter Olinda. I picked this up on the Make blog, though I should have spotted it on the BBC Radio Labs blog. The product design wonderful, and the modular nature of the hardware fascinating, but it’s the social computing that’s really intriguing. The Olinda is a DAB digital radio that connects to your home wi-fi network so that you can find out what your friends are listening to and they can find out about you. It’s done by Schulze and Webb for BBC Audio & Music Interactive. Wonderful. I do have some questions though. Radio is sometimes a solitary experience (e.g. the commute to work) but it is also playing in the heart of the family home – in the kitchen. Then whose taste is it reflecting? Is it my penchant for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4, my kid’s preference for BBC Radio 1 or Q103, or my wife’s preference for silence? Whose buddies is it sharing this knowledge with – mine, my daughter’s, the union, the intersection, etc? That’s the kind of issue we’ve been grappling with through our Epigraph project (and its successors) and it would be great to glean the Olinda team’s views on this. That said there are some wonderful sharing ideas in the explanatory pamphlet, e.g. klippit (c.f. Grab-and-Share) and volume voting.