With 30 million FM-only cars on the road in the UK alone, and digital dashboards appearing in new vehicles – what are the next steps for multiplatform radio?
What is Radioplayer?
We’re a non-profit joint venture, launched by the BBC and commercial radio, to make it easier to listen on connected devices. We build things – web Radioplayers, radio-discovery apps for tablet and mobile, and experimental hybrid multiplatform devices. Often described as ‘R&D for Radio’, we believe ‘a prototype is worth a thousand meetings’.
What are we up to?
We’re building a magic ‘black box’ which can be fitted in cars with older radios, transforming the existing stereo into a fully-fledged digital audio system. This builds on previous ‘DAB convertor’ kits in several ways…
• It’s a truly hybrid device, blending DAB, DAB+, FM, and IP into one station list
• It enables the driver to Bluetooth their music from their phone to their stereo
• It equips the car for hands-free Bluetooth phone calls
• It reads out inbound SMS messages safely over the speakers
• And it reads out audio travel alerts, based on your position and direction of travel
Why this project?
Because car conversion is an urgent priority for the radio industry. We have to find a way to get digital radio into the 30 million FM-only cars still driving around the UK.
But, even more importantly, our industry needs to learn how to build radio systems which are easier to use, and easier to integrate into modern dashboards.
For the best part of a century radio’s enjoyed a virtual monopoly in cars – but those days are over. Every motor company in the world is launching models which encourage drivers to connect their phones, opening up the dashboard to app-based entertainment.
And over the last 40 years, radio’s expanded onto new broadcast platforms – first FM, then DAB, DAB+, and HD Radio in the States. This increases choice, but also complexity – both for users (who have to switch wavebands) and for car companies trying to ‘build radio in’. So, we need to work out how to make a radio system that’s…
• ‘Plug-and-play’ for car companies, with the platform complexity and visuals sorted
• ‘Tap-and-play’ for listeners, with no wavebands to worry about
How are we doing it?
First we built a ‘proof of concept’ system that showed us that the project was possible. This was put together from radio hobby boards and a ‘Beaglebone’ (similar to a ‘Raspberry PI’ unit). Then we looked around for a potential hardware partner, and we found Connects2, a firm with considerable experience of building after-market audio hardware for cars. They turned the mess of wires in our ‘shoebox’ into a single circuit board, which they then shrank down to a size which can be fitted behind a car dashboard.
What are we learning?
We think the vision for the product is compelling, and it will be useful in markets where digital switchover is on the horizon (Norway, UK etc). We’re happy with the user experience (hybrid single station-list), and with the hardware build.
The area we’ve found most challenging is sourcing the transmission data to give the unit its multiplatform ‘intelligence’. In a moving car, the system may have to follow a single station across multiple FM frequencies, to several DAB multiplexes, and maybe then fall-back to an IP stream. Add to that the possibility that in central Europe the vehicle could be crossing several borders too, and you see how complex the data side could be.
We’re confident we can crack this, because we’re working with some of the best people in the world – in particular the RadioDNS team, Digital Radio UK, WorldDMB, Connects2, Furthermore (UX and design) and Togglebit (software and apps).
There are still some significant challenges to face in the weeks ahead, but that’s why we’re prototyping in the first place – to unearth those issues, and to help the radio industry get stronger. And because it’s more fun than attending a thousand meetings!
You can follow me on Twitter if you want updates as we progress – @radiomikehill. And if you’re interested in working in partnership on similar projects in the future, drop me a line. Once we’ve developed the logic to enable multiplatform station-following, we could apply the same thinking to kitchen radios, portable speakers, or car head units. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org.