Radio plays can transport listeners to far away exotic settings but the BBC’s prototype Perceptive Radio aims to give listeners a more localized experience. Shown to the public recently at the Thinking Digital Conference in Gateshead, UK, the Perceptive Radio uses local data and onboard sensors to adjust itself and even alter the script of a radio play in real time to reflect local conditions. The goal is to make listening to the radio more like attending live theater.

Developed by BBC R&D’s Future Media North Lab in collaboration with Mudlark, the Perceptive Radio may look like an old fashioned portable wireless set, but it conceals some real computing power. Perhaps the fact that it resembles something that George Orwell might have owned is apt because what it does sounds a bit Orwellian – it can sense what's going on around it and rewrite a radio play as you listen to it. However, its purpose is really to provide a glimpse at what broadcasting might one day look like and add a new dimension to the listener’s experience.

"It's the early stages of looking at what next-generation broadcasting is," said Tony Churnside, a BBC technologist. "Historically, our listeners have had either mono or stereo radios, but nowadays people are listening on such a variety of devices – the experience they're getting is really diverse."

The key to adapting to this new variety of devices is something called “Perceptive Media.” It’s a bit like responsive web design, where a web page is designed to alter based on what device it’s being viewed on, so it looks different on a smartphone than it does on a PC. In the case of the Perceptive Radio, the goal is to be interactive without invading the listener’s privacy, yet providing an immersive listening experience similar to theater or intimate storytelling.

An example of Perceptive Media is BBC R&D’s experimental radio play, Breaking Out. It’s a “proof-of-concept” drama consisting of a two-person cast, though the number is debatable because one “person” is a computer generated voice. It isn't just a play, it’s a computer algorithm that uses the IP address of the listener’s device and alters the dialogue in the script based on local information, such as the date, time of day, the listener’s location and the weather. As the play unfolds, the digital character mentions the time, local landmarks, whether or not it’s a nice day, and films playing at the local cinema.

"It's a radio drama that we wanted to use to try and find out how much this localization added to the experience of the listener," Churnside said.

The BBC’s Perceptive Radio is designed to play dramas like Breaking Out and looks like an old-fashioned portable wireless set made of birch wood with chrome accents and an acrylic panel. The original idea was something like a smartphone, but it was discovered that a larger device with a fast, powerful computer was needed. The developers also tried a screen in online tests, but users found this too distracting. The choice of making the device look like a domestic radio wasn't merely aesthetic. Part of the reason was to encourage the listeners to act naturally around it to help BBC R&D study how Perceptive Media worked.

Inside, the Perceptive Radio as a Mini-ITX PC system and includes various analog sensors, such as a microphone and a light sensor. These are supposed to make it interactive, but not in any overt manner. The only controls are on/off, play and volume, so the listener treats it like an ordinary radio while the device reacts to the listener and where it is. The data picked up by the radio about its location and surroundings alters the play script and audio settings within limits without the listener having to consciously do anything. The idea is to make it appear as if the author scripted the changes in advance.

The chief data used is location, movement, time, and spikes in ambient noise. BBC R&D found that radio listening is based on three scenarios. These are pottering about in one room, such as when making the tea, moving between rooms, such as when cleaning, and the third is settling down, as in parking in an armchair with a cup of tea to listen properly.

These indicate different levels of attention and the Perceptive Radio responds accordingly. The device picks up on local data as the experimental radio play did and the radio factors in additional data, such as ambient light and noise, so it can attempt to figure out what the listener is doing and what is happening in the room. It then not only changes the play script, but also amplifies or softens certain sounds and changes the equalizer settings to suit things like the listener's activity level and noise in the room, such as dishwashers running or saucers clattering.

Ian Forrester of BBC R&D said, “Perceptive Media, takes narrative back to something more aligned to a storyteller and an audience around a campfire using internet technologies and sensibility to create something closer to a personal theater experience in your living room.”

The Perceptive Radio is just a prototype, so it’s still too to say how successful it is. Some of the simpler bits, such as the volume adjusting itself, look brilliant, but we’re not sure about others. Having at least one member of the cast always played by a Dalek seems a bit limited and won’t go over well with Actor’s Equity. And given how much work writers and actors put into crafting a phrase or polishing a line reading, a computer that ad libs on the fly may be less than ideal.

You can listen to Breaking Out at BBC R&D (interactive features may not work outside the UK).

Sources: BBC. Mudlark

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