Yesterday I was at the BBC Audio Research Partnership conference, where I heard twenty audio demonstrations showing what consumers might hear in the future when they turn on their radios or TVs. Here are a few of the highlights.
I was struck by the perceptive radio which was playing a short audio play called Breaking Out. The on-line drama has a character who is a lift, and what the lift says is contextualised to where you are. So the lift talks about the local weather and landmarks, in my case mentioning the Salford docks and the sunshine. The prototype box shown at the event responded to environmental conditions, such as how brightly lit the room is. (Want to know more? Salford Ph.D. student Tony Churnside from BBC R&D has blogged about it.)
What makes the perceptive drama work on-line is the use of a text-to-speech processor built into your browser. In traditional radio, the broadcaster puts together the finished audio, and all you had to do is tune in and feed the signals to the loudspeakers and headphones. With the proliferation of mobile computing (e.g. smart phones), it is possible for radio stations to broadcast audio which can then be adjusted to suit yourself. When BBC Radio 5 live broadcast the Crystal Palace v Watford Championship Playoff Final on-line, listeners were given the chance to adjust what they heard. If you were a Crystal Palace fan, you could choose to hear crowd noise from the end of the ground where the Palace supporters were singing. You could also adjust how loud the commentary was compared to the crowd sounds.
An important tool being developed to allow audio to be processed by the listener’s computer/smart phone/tablet is the web audio api. One of the demonstrations had used this tool to recreate some of the old effects units from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop including the wobbulator. Less fun, but maybe much more useful, was a demonstration of a laptop playing a radio station where the output was responding to the ambient noise in the room. As the noise level in the room increased, the audio was compressed so it could be better heard above the hubbub. While dynamic range compression is not new, it has been in mobile technology for sometime, the ability to implement this in a browser so it can work across lots of different devices is a significant step forward.
My colleague from Salford, Ian Drumm, was demonstrating a portable wave field synthesis system (a smaller version to the one picture above). There were a number of different demos showing how surrounding the listener with loudspeakers can create a much more immersive effect than old-fashioned stereo. In the BBC R&D listening room I heard part of an adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio that had been mixed on a IOSONO system using 26 loudspeakers. Having sounds from the drama all around gave a much more exciting and dramatic narrative, similar to what you get from a soundtrack in a cinema using Dolby Atmos. But while this was a dramatic demonstration of how modern audio technology can enhance a drama, the general public are never going to put such a large number of loudspeakers in their homes. Spatial audio systems that work in our homes need to be invented.
How do you think radio should develop in the future? What would you like to hear and on what device?