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BBC Olinda digital radio: Social hardware

If you asked me to pick the two cards Schulze & Webb play with abandon in the consultancy game, they’d be Product and Experience.

Products should be what toy companies call shelf-demonstrable–even sitting in a box in shop, a product can explain itself to the customer (or at least tell its simplest story in a matter of seconds). Organisationally, understanding a website or component of a mobile service as a product means being able to describe it in a single sentence, means understanding the audience, means focusing on a single thing well, means having ‘this is what we are here for’ as a mantra for the team, and it means being able to (formally or informally) have metrics and goals. Here’s it in a nutshell: You know it’s a product when it has an ethos–when the customers and the team know pretty much what the product would do in any given circumstance.

Then we play Experience. The experiential approach is how you and the product live together and interact. The atoms are cognitive (psychology and perception), while the day-to-day is it’s own world: Play, sociality, cultural resonance, and more. Each of these is an area of experience to be individual understood in terms of how it can be used. The third level of experience we deal with is context: How the product is approached (physically and mentally), and how it fits in with other products, people and expectations.

We can go a long way, and make decent recommendations of directions and concrete features, with those two cards.

And now we’re making a radio. As much as we’ve said these approaches apply across media, services and (physical, consumer) product, working with physical products has recently been only in our own research. Hey, until now. Until now!

Olinda is a digital radio prototype for the BBC

For the past month we’ve been working on the feasibility of Olinda, a DAB digital radio prototype for the BBC (for non-UK readers: DAB is the local digital radio standard, getting traction globally). That stage is almost over now – oh and yes, it’s feasible – so now’s a good time to talk.

Olinda puts three ideas into practice:

  • Radios can look better than the regular ‘kitchen radio’ devices. Radios can have novel interfaces that make the whole life-cycle of listening easier. At short runs, wood is more economic as plastic, so we’re using a strong bamboo ply. And forget preset buttons: Olinda monitors your listening habits so switching between two stations is the simplest possible action, with no configuration step.
  • This can be radio for the Facebook generation. Built-in wifi connects to the internet and uses a social ‘now listening’ site the BBC already have built. Now a small number of your friends are represented on the device: A light comes on, your friend is listening; press a button and you tune in to listen to the same programme.
  • If an API works to make websites adaptive, participative with the developer community, and have more appropriate interfaces, a hardware API should work just as well. Modular hardware is achievable, so the friends functionality will be its own component operating through a documented, open, hardware API running over serial.

What Olinda isn’t is a far-future concept piece or a smoke-and-mirrors prototype. There’s no hidden Mac Mini–it’s a standalone, fully operational, social, digital radio.

The intention with Olinda is that it’s maximum 9 months out: It’s built around the same embedded DAB and wifi modules the manufacturers use. And it has to be immediately understandable and appealing for the mass market. Shelf-demonstrable is the way to go.

The BBC should be able to take it to industry partners, and for those partners to see it as free, ready-made R&D for the next product cycle. We have a communications strategy ready around this activity.

So that’s why I’m proud to say that, when complete, the BBC will put the IPR of Olinda under an attribution license–the equivalent of a BSD or Creative Commons Attribution. If a manufacturer or some person wants to make use of the ideas and design of the device, they’re free to do so without even checking with the BBC, so long as they put the BBC attribution and copyright for the IPR that’s been used on the bottom.

More later

The feasibility wraps up in the next week or so, as I budget the build phase. When build starts, we have an intern starting–perhaps two (yes, we got a great response to putting those feelers out). But that deserves its own post.

And there’s a lot to talk about. For start, what Olinda will look like (we have drawings and form experiments). And how the Product and Experience approaches will manifest.

That’s for later. In the meantime, here’s the Frontier Silicon Venice 5 module operating on a breadboard:

Venice 5

The DAB module is wrapped in insulation tape, and you can make out the stereo socket (it’s blurry because it’s standing out of the focal plane) and the antenna. Running from the breadboard is a serial cable to my computer which is assembling and decoding messages for tuning, playing, receiving radio text messages and so on.

Thanks to Tristan Ferne, Amy Taylor and John Ousby and their teams at BBC Audio & Music Interactive for making this happen.

(Incidentally: Olinda, the name of this project, is aspirational, chosen from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Olinda is transcribed at the bottom of that page). We could do worse that help along the radio industry in the same way Calvino’s city grows.)

11 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Jay Fienberg said on 20 August 2007...

    Olinda sounds awesome! Really exciting. (Maybe of interest, my 2004 description of The future of music playback, much of which might be fulfilled by Olinda :-)

  • 2. waffles the bear said on 21 August 2007...

    “Olinda monitors your listening habits”
    Yeah, so do I, so O’Linda is redundant by the first germane paragraph in this essay.
    “A light comes on, your friend is listening; press a button and you tune in to listen to the same programme.”
    Will there be a “listen to anything but what my friends listen to” button as well?

  • 3. matthew said on 21 August 2007...

    neat idea. would be cool to hook into existing tracking systems (thinking when a song plays on the radio, and you like it, mark it as such. even more importantly, if you don’t know what its called (as so often happens when i’m listening to the radio these days.. i’m getting old), you can find out more details on it, download it from itunes etc.). how much data does digital radio send of that sort of type of information? yes yes, very exciting prospect. keep us posted.

  • 4. Matt said on 21 August 2007...

    matthew–have a look at Radio Pop (that’s Tristan’s write-up), the BBC’s social radio attention site Olinda is making use of. One nice side-effect of using an abstracted attention site is that the online Radio Player could back onto the same service, so you get the same social sharing whether you’re listening with a physical device or on the Web.

    When I was at the BBC a couple years back, we built it’s actually BBC 6 Music.

    In terms of what digital radio provides: it depends on the broadcaster. Some say what the programme is, and some give the track name/title (this is in the DLS Text I think). But the text that comes over isn’t marked up, so we can’t guess what each string refers to. Maybe in the future.

    I’d love to see more of these prototypes reach the market… baby steps.

    Jay: nice! I’ve seen a bunch of great thoughts about the future of radio recently; I’ll have to collate them.

  • 5. dpomic said on 21 August 2007...

    With Wi-Fi and Internet access built-in, how about access to Internet radio–including those same DAB stations, all the rest of the UK, and the rest of the world? And, Listen Again shows and episodes and podcasts–in addition to live stations? Like RadioCentrePlayer?

    How’s the BBC going to moderate that social networking site–to the standard expected?

  • 6. Jim Rait said on 22 August 2007...

    Really interesting and motivating work- well done! Didn’t recognise the name but only reached p 122; Olinda appears on p 129! Calvino’s Six Memos for a new Millenium is also relevant… he suggests we incorporate these values into our works: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity and Consistency. Which seems to give us a steer for the next stage!

  • 7. Matt Brown said on 22 August 2007...

    In work we’ve started using the term ‘shelf-evident’ instead, purely because no-one can resist trying a Sean Connery accent after they say it.

  • 8. Matt said on 23 August 2007...

    dpomic: Good point about Internet radio. I don’t know about the BBC’s wider plans (it’s a huge organisation) but this radio deliberately only tackles live DAB. A couple of reasons for that… first is that I think the interaction design problems around finding and listening to on demand radio and to 1000s of stations (with no canonical list) are specific enough that they deserve to be tackled separately. Actually, there’s a lot of great work going on with that already, on the Web and in new physical internet radios. DAB is a well understood space and it’s doing well in the market, so it’s a good time to push further and say “hey, this is what happens if we take the lessons of the Web and apply them to broadcast radio” (or maybe not so broadcast anymore).

    To your social networking question: Radio Pop is a prototype at the moment, just as the radio will be (Olinda isn’t intended to go to large-scale manufacture). But let’s say the BBC did take Radio Pop live, I’m sure they’d be diligent with their moderation and keep to the same guidelines. (I think having a physical device in the loop could actually make it safer–Animal Crossing and Mariokart on the Nintendo DS allow ‘social networking’ but it’s safe enough for kids to use.)

    Jim: I’ll pick up Six Memos this afternoon. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Matt: You’re right about the accent, and I’m glad there’s nobody else in the room with me at the moment.

  • 9. Tristan said on 24 August 2007...

    Regarding the social networking part of this: In it’s current form all Radio Pop does is track your listening and connect this to your friends. Obviously there are privacy implications around the listening but I’m not sure there needs to be any moderation if this is all that it does.

  • 10. James said on 27 August 2007...

    This sounds like a great project, and I really look forward to seeing the next stage.

    One question – I’m currently refurbishing an old radio, and suddenly realished I should make it DAB – any tips on where I can pick up a good DAB kit, or unit like you’re using? Ta.

  • 11. James said on 27 August 2007...

    Oh – and the name. Didn’t spot the Calvino reference at first read – is it really nothing to do with the real Olinda (, and the fact that “in Olinda admission to carnival is free”?

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