Myself and Iain McDonald attended SBES last month, where Tristan Ferne (more details) and James Cridland (more details) made a presentation to the assembled masses in the FutureZone about a couple of prototypes they were working on (with others) in the BBC Radio Labs. One of the concepts, Radio Pop, covered more social interaction with radio listening via online streaming, engaging listeners and drawing them in, enticing them whilst plotting usage versus popularity in a very bubbly, pretty kind of way. Very good, though it's never going to make it to production (at least in the state it was presented to us).

Another, far more interesting concept - and annoyingly, the one they left until last - was all about Olinda. By happy coincidence, "Ó Linda" means "oh, beautiful!" in Portugese. (According to Tristan Ferne, the project was named after an imaginary city in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and the realisation that Olinda is a real place only came afterwards). Unfortunately, there wasn't a physical, working prototype at SBES, due to external forces beyond their control (read: most likely Schulze & Webb dropped the ball and didn't get it finished in time!), but they had a good raft of imagery and other information, and you can read more about the product (and its design) on the blogs of both James Cridland and the project's designers, Schulze & Webb.

A mockup of Olinda with a modular addon attached (sketched in white). "The drawing is from a little over a week ago, and is based on a model used to investigate certain materials and assembly."
(From S&W blog, with thanks)

In a nutshell, however, Olinda is designed to be an extensible, low cost, futureproof digital radio, with the requisite ease of use and durability. It supports the DAB format out of the box, with further expansion (both functionality and format support) designed to be added in an extensible way. This is the cool part kids, so prepare yourselves: if you want to add wireless functionality (wifi) to the device, to play Internet streams, you buy the wifi snap-on for it. You get it home, you take it out of its packaging and - quite literally - snap it onto the side of the radio. There's no mechanical clips or switches to hold these modules in place; a cleverly-designed case combined with magnets inside both the radio's socket and the snap-on modules hold each modules in place. The only physical connection would be between the radio and the module via a small, common-interface connection, ensuring that any modules will work in any order with the device. This also results in the possibility of daisychaining modules to add functionality... New digital format making waves in the industry, and you want to listen to stations being broadcast in it? Just buy the snap-on module block, attach it to your radio and away you go.

The key factor in this radio's success will be its compatibility and takeup. It has the potential to itself make waves in the hardware market and the consumer market, purely due to its social nature. Features such as the ability to compare your most-listened stations with your friends' favourites over the web, or to see what they're listening to and tune in with one click suddenly become a distinct possibility. Perhaps the most enticing thing about Olinda is the promise that the entire interface, including the API for module designers, will be disclosed in full to the world via an Attribution license, meaning that, as Cridland puts it himself,

The thing I’m most pleased about... [is] the fact that all this hard work is available for any manufacturer to use. For free. As Matt from S&W says…

The BBC should be able to take [the radio] to industry partners, and for those partners to see it as free, ready-made R&D for the next product cycle.

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.

This is all great news. Free, ready-made R&D for manufacturers. And some tremendous content for us. It’s a win-win.

In essence, the BBC is designing the radio with S&W and will bring it to market, perhaps with some basic functionality and a bundled module to increase takeup (a wifi connectivity module would make the most sense). They sell the device, make some money, but most importantly offer up all the previous R&D and base platform as one which can be improved upon by third parties designing their own modular additions to the platform, all of which are guaranteed to be fully interoperable - and the only requirement is that if another company designs a module, they can just go and do it without mandatory prior consultation, provided they thank the BBC and make consumers aware about this.

This also opens up the possibility for some really nifty extensions to the base platform; multiple format support, all kinds of wireless functionality (wifi, including future specs and subsets of the wireless standard such as N spec and MiMo, UWB support, the ability to rebroadcast within the locality of your house on FM (just like the FM senders currently popular with MP3 player owners) or play and repeat a stream to another device over the network, resulting in a network of radios all playing the same music in sychronicity wirelessly - ideal for house parties! From what I understand of this aspect of Olinda, the possibilities are only limited by the limitations of the API and the creativeness of the designers, a far cry from today's insular, closed-design digital radios from Pure, Roberts and the like.

One of the reasons I usually hate buying into new technologies is that you enter into a lifecycle with one device, and then something which can do the job better or in a cooler way comes out - and you're stuck with a lump of a product which feels clunky and unrefined. I know this is a side-effect of the rapid turnover of electrical goods and technology in this day and age, but I hate it. One of the best examples of this is current BluRay/HD-DVD format war, and the (kind of) associated HD war. So, you're selling me this laptop today for £800, but in two months' time it'll be in the bargain basement section of your web site, and in four months made completely obsolete by its successor model and unavailable to buy? Right. You also want me to buy an HDTV which can accept 1080p but only has a physical panel resolution of 1366x768? You want me to buy this HD player which is almost totally proprietary and only supports its own brand of system link, so I can't control all my devices from one remote even though they all have similar implementations of system link and cost more than £1,000? Yeah, erm, I think I'll pass (and I'll hack my PC to play back the latest formats with the addition of a few codecs and play it back on my existing flat panel HD-ready LCD monitor, without having to invest in a whole new device).

This is also why Iain has a mantra about buying new Mac technology: there's only two times of the year when you can safely invest in new Mac hardware, in September and after the latest Stevenote, because then you're guaranteed at least six months of the latest and greatest before something else comes out to usurp it.

Herein lies the beauty of Olinda's design. its lifecycle differs radically from traditional devices; if you can add functionality down the line via a simple modular upgrade even your Granny can manage, then you're onto a winner - a return to longer product lifecycles is long overdue. Can you remember the last CD player you owned? My parents owned a Philips CD player from the early 1990s, and it ran almost flawlessly for the best part of ten years before the laser alignment mechanism began to fail. Our current CD player is a cheap supermarket DVD player, but it looks horrible, the sound quality isn't as good and no doubt it'll fail within the next two years. Any product which is implicitly designed to reduce waste (from units discarded when upgrades are purchased) and is kinder to the environment in terms of raw resources is a laudable thing (and another desirable side-effect).

Another problem the UK has (along with other EU member states, to an extent) is that it's now entrenched in two digital broadcast formats - DAB for radio and MPEG-2 (DVB-T) for TV. These are rapidly ageing and showing their weaknesses, but the problem the industry is facing is that they've reached critical mass with existing deployment of technology, too many people have these first- and second-gen devices in their homes. To just up and change to an entirely new standard is unthinkable, let alone unworkable right now.

A format like DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale, not digital rights/restrictions management) or DAB+ would be a welcome progression given our country's limited available spectrum and the relentlessness with which the existing DAB format has already been marketed, but without some kind of backwards compatibility or simulcast of two formats over a long period of time, no real change is going to come about. However, if any change does come about, all a developer has to do is bring a module to market which offers support for a future format, and people can buy it and extend the lifecycle of their Olinda radio until the next format comes along. Smart idea.

I was thinking about this very issue during the SBES presentation, and at the end I did put this point to James Cridland, asking him whether software-on-chip would be included in the device - that would again solve another problem, because if everyone's using the same set, all that has to be done to add support for a new format is to broadcast out a new firmware for the radio, or offer it as a download which can be flashed to the unit from a computer or directly from the unit using an Internet connection. This would eliminate the problem of changing an entire country's broadcast format, and personally I'd love a radio which could do that. However, I received the stock response about how that kind of functionality could (and most likely would, I assumed) be offered via modular upgrades. Still, it's better than nothing!

The product is still very much in its nascent stages, but I hope that come the start of 2008, Schulze & Webb and the BBC will have physical demo units available to help explain their concept and ideas to the general population, because I really want to get my hands on one! If they ever do a private alpha or beta, they're more than welcome to send me a preview unit for feedback and bug testing! I feel I've barely scratched the surface of this device with regards to its possible functionality, the social element is also going to factor into this radio in a big way and frankly that's only a good thing.

Put me down on the waiting list for a production unit, too. ;)

1 Comment:

  1. James Cridland said...
    I did put this point to James Cridland, asking him whether software-on-chip would be included in the device - that would again solve another problem, because if everyone's using the same set, all that has to be done to add support for a new format is to broadcast out a new firmware for the radio ... However, I received the stock response about how that kind of functionality could (and most likely would, I assumed) be offered via modular upgrades.

    The answer I probably should have given is... absolutely, this is possible. We're not building the radio - we're working on the concept, and making this work available for free to manufacturers and broadcasters. If they want to use firmware-upgradeable chipsets, that's entirely up to them. If they want to ignore us totally, that, too, is up to them! ;)

    Thanks for the blog posting. There'll be two 'Olinda' radio sets in existence, ever - so your chances of getting one to test are slim to non-existent, I'm afraid... ;)

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