Wireless Music's New Social Sound
By David Pescovitz, Thu Oct 21 09:00:00 GMT 2004

Twenty-five years after the invention of the Walkman, wireless researchers are singing a new song about the future of mobile music.

Seventy-five years ago, a group of eager engineers convinced entrepreneur Paul Galvin that young people would do well with some mood music when they went parking on Lovers Lane. The following year, Galvin Manufacturing Corporation launched its first car radio, named by fusing the words "motor" and the suffix "ola," borrowed from the popular Victrola phonographs. In 1930, the state-of-the-art Motorola car radio defined music in motion. The next revolution in mobile music wouldn't happen until 1979. Indeed, this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Sony Walkman, wearable technology that provided young people with a private soundtrack for the movie of their lives. Since then though, the song has remained the same.

Sure, we've seen the Discman and, of course, MP3 players like the Rio and the iPod. Meanwhile, the advent of peer-to-peer networks and the wireless Web have spawned new paradigms in music delivery, with more upheaval to come. But the mobile listening experience is essentially unchanged. For the most part, we crank up the car stereo or don our earbuds and turn on, tune in, and drop out from the world around us.

"We have all of this network infrastructure to deliver music, but the music we share and the way we listen to it hasn't changed to reflect the social and information dynamics that the infrastructure provides," says Atau Tanaka, a developer of future music systems at the Sony Computer Science Laboratory Paris.

Listen carefully though, and you'll hear the opening strains of new mobile listening experiences in development at research laboratories around the world. For example, Tanaka is developing technology that transforms mobile music listening from a passive activity into a creative social experience, even when your friends are too far away for a close dance. In Tanaka's demonstration of his Malleable Mobile Music system, each participant holds a PDA outfitted with pressure and motion sensors. A familiar song by Icelandic techno-chanteuse Bjork wirelessly streams to the devices simultaneously. Each listener selects a component in the music to be his or her musical avatar -- drums, voice or horn section, for example.

As one participant naturally sways to the groove, the PDA's motion sensor detects his motion and shifts the tempo of the song. With the song's intensity building, another listener subconsciously grips her PDA tighter, introducing echo effects into the mix. The closer that listening partners move to each other, the more prominent their part in the song becomes. Meanwhile, the software applies various "error correction" techniques to prevent an onslaught of arrhythmic noise, unless of course that's the goal. As they listen to it, the mobile music orchestra transforms the tune into a dubby, spacey version of the familiar Bjork song.

While Tanaka's malleable music technology is still in the early prototype stage, he envisions that the sensors could become inexpensive snap-on attachments for tomorrow's converged mobile device.

"From a device-oriented perspective, it's a future Walkman," Tanaka says. "But for the content industry, it's a brand new form of content."

An artist, he says, might release a song from an upcoming album specially prepared for the Malleable Music System. Someday, malleable music may even become an art form in its own right, leading to a duet between the artist and the audience.

"Historically, music was never meant to exist in isolation," Tanaka says. "There was always a physical, acoustical, and even social context. These kinds of technologies can add some of those elements back in to the listening experience."

Mattias Ístergren and his colleagues at the Interactive Institute in Stockholm are also designing wireless software for mobile music "socials." But the dance parties they envision take place at 55 miles per hour. Sound Pryer is a wireless peer-to-peer system for joint music listening in automobiles. Each driver becomes a mobile radio station, transmitting their digital music stream to other cars within Wi-Fi range.

Sound Pryer has similarities to tUNA, a handheld ad-hoc networking radio device demonstrated last year by Media Lab Europe that enables users to tune in to other nearby digital music players, on a school bus for example. And while the PDA-based Sound Pryer system can also be used in more stationary face-to-face situations, Ístergren purposely kept his eyes on the road when designing the system. First of all, he writes in a scientific paper (PDF), it's a tougher challenge than more stationary systems. The potential duration of interactions between drivers may be extremely short as the cars zip down the highway or, in the event of gridlock, painfully long. The freeway is also a decidedly anonymous zone, perfect for studying how people might react to a new social technology.

"On the road is where we encounter the most people," Ístergren says. "We'd like to augment those encounters."

Sound Pryer works by wirelessly broadcasting whatever digital music file the user is listening to in their car. Think of it as a shared car radio. As cars close in on each other, ad hoc wireless networks form and the number of available "stations" grows. When you tune in to a particular car, your PDA's display lights up with a stylized icon depicting the vehicle's shape and color. During a field trial, Ístergren says, users were jazzed to hear even snippets of strange audio and identify the source in the next lane over.

"We spend an incredible amount of time in cars," Ístergren says. "You don't think of it as a very social experience but in fact you're surrounded by thousands of other drivers and passengers."

Whether it's malleable music or networked car stereos, the mobile music experience is due for a remix. And no matter how futuristic the tools, the end goal is always the same.

"Even with all of this new technology, I just want to make something that rocks," Tanaka says.