Friday, June 24, 2005

Back to steam wireless

Telefunken radio grammophone

I'm back in my childhood, stuck in front of a piece of electronics listening to audio. It used to be a Telefunken valve radio and grammophone, and now it's my PC.

I love listening to the audio streams on web radio sites. It's wonderful to catch up with NPR shows I missed, or get an RSS feed of the most recent CadenaSer news broadcast. I can watch video of lectures on philosophy, or interviews with the digerati. The trouble is, I'm stuck in front of the PC. By contrast, I carry around my transistor radio in the morning as I shower and make breakfast, or as I'm cooking in the evening. The sound follows me around.

I suppose I could buy an MP3 player - but I hate walking around with my ears plugged up. I want to listen and interact with the rest of the world. I want to be able to walk away and have the audio fade. I don't want my attention monopolized by the audio - even if the earbuds produced sound half as good as my cheapo Sony transistor.

What I want is a wireless Internet radio. A just-for-the-purpose, Wi-Fi connected, MP3-enabled audio device that stores and streams audio feeds. An iPod with a couple of speakers and a Wi-Fi card velcroed to it might do the trick (if it weren't for likely poor battery life).

Of course, if I can think of something, someone's already doing it. Reciva’s Wireless Household Internet Radio (Reciva, engadget, ehomupgrade) is close to what I want, though it doesn't support podcasting. There's also the little problem that it's not on the market yet; it looks like a design concept in search of distribution. [1]

Even if they were successful in finding a market, Reciva's product would probably be obsolete in a year. Twelve months ago building in podcast support would not have been a no-brainer it is today. What one needs is a lego kit for new hardware. It doesn't need to be superbly well designed; the Heath Robinson-aspect (Rube Goldberg, for those on the other side of the water [2]) of being plugged together will have a certain geek chic. The software needs to be good, though; it Should Just Work out of the box. That's tricky; general-purpose pluggability and seamless usage are mutually exclusive (cf. Microsoft vs. Apple). I guess I'll just have to wait it out until the technology settles down long enough for it to be worth someone's while to bring an Internet Radio to Circuit City.


[1] Some other design ideas: Roku Tatung's "wireless MP3 players that will stream internet radio" (engadget), Torian’s InFusion portable wireless Internet radio (engadget).

[2] Robinson and Goldberg were contemporaries; Robinson was born in 1872, and Goldberg in 1883. They were famous on opposite sides of the Atlantic for their drawings of outlandish contraptions that performed simple tasks in outrageously complicated ways. They spoke to everyone's fascination and fear of complicated technology in the first third of the 20th Century. In a way they had it easy - technology was still largely mechanical, and thus visible. After the 1950's technology became invisible, its workings hidden in the black boxes of silicon chips and software algorithms. I love visiting old water mills, because one can trace the mechanism by walking through it. The adept can still do this with today's technology, but it requires an act of abstract imagination that isn't available to all.


Stephen said...

I love listening to the BBC's Radio 4 online ... have you listened to Electronic Brains or 5 Numbers or Another 5 for example?
Bliss :-)

Pierre de Vries said...

Super links, thanks Stephen. I hadn't listened to any of those shows. I've just sampled the Numbers series - fabulous.

In general it's clear that the BBC is at the cutting edge of web media: not only in posting streams and RSS, but also cool stuff like Backstage where people submit prototypes eg Monkey News which reaggregates BBC feeds.