Friday, 31 May 2013

Object-oriented media: has its time arrived?

Earlier this week I was in Amsterdam and came across a heron, sitting patiently on the top of a car on Lindengracht in the Jordaan. Since gracht means canal you are probably not surprised. However, this particular canal was filled in many years ago (after a riot over a game involving catching an eel suspended on a rope over the canal, since you ask) so this heron's vantage point was nowhere near water. Two days later I returned to the Lindengracht and the bird was again sitting on a car. Is this, I wonder, a triumph of hope over experience?

I've been hoping for many years that broadcasting would be able to embrace the idea of transmitting a programme made of independent component parts ... objects. Multitrack audio is an easy example to understand: mix the instruments (objects) in the receiver instead of the studio. A listener could change the mix if required, to give a different balance between voice and background for example. The intended, or default, mix would be transmitted along with the objects.

This concept has recently gained traction in BBC R&D with a great paper from Tony Churnside linking to an interactive drama based on their concepts. A special kind of radio receiver, a perceptive radio, has been developed which adjusts a programme based on what it knows of the listener's environment.

The idea of building programmes from objects isn't new but in the past the technology (ie computer power) was restrictive and there wasn't really a distribution channel. The basics of this are actually part of the MPEG-4 standard, although they seem to have been forgotten behind the bright and shiny new video codecs. At one time we would consider using objects to counter bandwidth problems: distribute relatively static components early and slowly ready in the receiver to be put together on-the-fly with low bandwidth dynamic information. This is like the sprites used in video games or symbols on a weather map. The same techniques would allow an end user to take some control over a programme.

It is this last idea that is still the most exciting to me. Is it still a triumph of hope over experience? I note that Tony links interactivity to objects at the end of the paper, so I think we're getting closer.