Archives for November 2012

Building an Internet of Playthings

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Pete Warren Pete Warren | 21:18 UK time, Thursday, 29 November 2012

Sketch of Internet of Things facets

This post was written by Jasmine Cox. Jasmine is an intern with the BBC/ FIRM partnership working on developing and exploring the Internet of Things with Vicky Spengler.

In early November BBC R&D hosted an unconference in Bridge House centred on the theme of Playful IoT Futures.

Alongside the engaging conference activities we also trialled a primary stage prototype for tagging media at live events, principally as initial research into attendee behaviour, but also to get everyone's imaginative juices flowing and promote playful discussion.

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Developing the World Service archive prototype: UX

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Pete Warren Pete Warren | 19:54 UK time, Thursday, 29 November 2012

The World Service archive prototype currently contains over 70,000 programmes and 40,000 distinct tags. As designer, my aim was to make the interface intuitive, frictionless, uncluttered and attractive. We want to encourage users to not only enjoy the archive, but interact with it and help us improve the metadata.

Image of tag voting

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Developing the World Service archive prototype

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Andrew Nicolaou | 16:49 UK time, Thursday, 29 November 2012

The time-span for developing the prototype was very short. We wanted to be able to demonstrate the prototype at the IBC’2012 convention in early September where our section was offered a booth in its Future Zone, which gave us two months.

Quite early on, we realised that in order to get to something viable in such a short time, we needed to involve a small user community very early on. In order to do so, we put a first version of the prototype online very quickly (mid-July), pointed a few hundred users from the Global Minds listener panel at it very early on, and started to gather feedback. This feedback helped us understand user needs more precisely and prioritise features of the prototype. We will describe our development process during these two months in two blog posts, this one focuses on the engineering work and the next one focuses on the User Experience of the prototype.

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Audio on the Web - Explore the BBC sound of the 1960s

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Chris Lowis Chris Lowis | 10:41 UK time, Thursday, 29 November 2012

In previous posts on this blog Olivier described our work with the Web Audio API. We wanted to work with the Web Audio API, to discover its capabilities and limitations, and to contribute learning materials to the community and feedback to the W3C working group. We decided to do this by recreating, in JavaScript, some classic early Radiophonic Workshop techniques: the Wobbulator, the Gunfire Effects Generator, the Tape Loop and the Ring Modulator.

Read the rest of this article to find out how we recreated these sounds, and to try them out yourself.

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The World Service archive prototype

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Yves Raimond | 10:32 UK time, Thursday, 29 November 2012

The World Service archive prototype

Over this past summer we built a prototype that puts the BBC World Service radio archive on the web. The prototype lets you explore and listen to around 70,000 radio programmes covering 60 years of the World Service. Because it is such a large and diverse archive with sparse descriptive data, we have had to categorise and tag all these programmes with machines running speech-to-text, topic extraction and speaker identification algorithms. And now we want people to help us validate and correct this automatically generated data and improve the archive for everyone. Please sign up to the prototype and let us know what you think.

We previously wrote about our work on automated tagging of large archives in this blog, done within our ABC-IP project. Since then, we have been deriving more and more data automatically: topic tags, segmentations and speaker identifications. However automated tools will never be perfect, especially for something as subjective as tags. The World Service Archive prototype aims to test a new approach to publishing large archives online. First, automated processes are used to annotate the archive with tags, bootstrapping search and navigation for users. Then user feedback on these tags will make them better, improving the search and navigation, but also feeding back to improve our automated tools.

This approach is significantly different from the way BBC archives are currently published online, focusing on archive segments around particular brands (e.g. Desert Island Discs, or more recently Letters from America) or particular topics (e.g., World War II), manually annotating that segment of the archive and building segment-specific navigation using those annotations. However there are a number of questions we need to answer when testing our novel approach of combining automated metadata with crowdsourcing techniques. Is it acceptable to publish an archive where the metadata hasn't been comprehensively checked? What are the minimal features required to make such an archive proposition work? Is variable quality metadata acceptable to users? Does user feedback actually lead to increased accuracy? What are the best mechanisms to engage our users in helping us with improving that data?

The prototype was first tested by the World Service listener's panel, Global Minds and registration is now open.

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IRFS Weeknotes #131

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Olivier Thereaux | 10:34 UK time, Monday, 26 November 2012

Judging only by the content of all the printouts and post-its stuck to our walls these past couple of weeks, one could easily assume that our office has been invaded by a typical web site development team. And indeed, we have been busy preparing for the beta test of the new R&D web site. But while this is not our typical research project, it does have the sweet smell of dogfood. Anyone who has seen the World Service Archive prototype or even the Mythology Engine will not be surprised to know our approach is to make a large archive of content easier to browse through tagging and massive interlinking.

Our wall of annotated designs for the RD web site

Look away from the walls and start looking at the screens and desks however, and you will find activity on many other projects.

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Playful IoT Futures unConference

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Vicky Spengler Vicky Spengler | 17:26 UK time, Monday, 19 November 2012

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the most interesting research topics on the horizon for BBC R&D. Given that the BBC is a broadcaster, how does it fit into the IoT? Most scenarios about the IoT tend towards smart cities, home energy management, transport and data value chains. All useful discussions, but it’s hard for people to understand how it could benefit them personally or fit into their lives. 

We are interested in how everyday interactions with media and entertainment can be amplified using connected objects and devices. The BBC is in the business of telling stories - so we want to know how the IoT can help us to do this better.

On November 7 we hosted the first Playful IoT Futures event and invited a range of experts to help us explore what the Internet of Things could mean for the BBC and our audiences. The video below gives a flavour of the event.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

One of the questions I posed in the intro talk at the event was “How might we extend storytelling (broadcast media or games) beyond the screen into the physical world?”

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IRFS Weeknotes #130

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Tristan Ferne | 15:43 UK time, Friday, 16 November 2012

Well, I'm supposed to be across all of the work from the Internet Research and Future Services team so today's weeknotes is a look at the current state of projects. In no particular order:

Vista - exploring applications of real-time audience data

Status: consolidating

The sprint team have built 3 quick prototypes, "Heartbeat EPG", "Infinite Trailers" and "Radio Stats", which is just being polished off and was shown at our team demo session on Thursday. Chris Newell is currently looking at Storm for distributed and fault-tolerant data stream processing. And then we need to work out which areas to take further.

The Vista dashboard

World Service archive - putting archives online with machine-generated and crowd-sourced metadata.

Status: learning

The protoype has been live for a couple of months with a select group of users. We now want to know what we've learnt so we've been analysing feedback and data. Michael has fallen in love with the seer gem for his graphs, we've been grappling with analytics and trawling through the feedback we've received.

The World Service archive

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IRFS Weeknotes #129

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Libby Miller | 13:22 UK time, Monday, 12 November 2012

This week's big event for us was the Playful Internet of Things Futures unconference held in Salford. An unconference is an event that the participants organise themselves and vote with their feet. This one was designed to "share ideas to advance IoT thinking in new domains like media, entertainment, storytelling, games and toys", and the team - splendidly led by Vicky - got a very interesting and knowledgeable group of people, mostly from outside the BBC, in one place to talk to each other...

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Radiotagbot - Bookmarking Radio and TV using Twitter

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Libby Miller | 16:58 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2012

Radiotagbot is a way to bookmark the current point in a programme that you're listening to (or watching) live, by using twitter. To create a bookmark, you send a message to @radiotagbot with the name of a BBC radio or TV station in in it (e.g. "radio 4" or "r1x" or "BBC1") and it will tweet back to you with the title of the programme and a link to the point in time on iPlayer at which it will (usually) appear. If it's on Radio 1, 1x, 2, 3 or 6 Music, it will also attempt to reply with the music track playing.

Here are some sample exchanges:

Libby Miller ‏@libbymiller
@radiotagbot hello! what's on radio 3?

radiotagbot ‏@radiotagbot
@libbymiller Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 'Italian' by Felix Mendelssohn

Libby Miller ‏@libbymiller
Interview with Daniel Craig on #radio4 @radiotagbot

radiotagbot @radiotagbot
@libbymiller The Film Programme

Libby Miller ‏@libbymiller
I am definitely going out to buy some sweets in a minute @radiotagbot #bbcfour /cc @realnigelslater

radiotagbot @radiotagbot
@libbymiller Nigel Slater: Life Is Sweets ... cc @realnigelslater

You can leave it at that, or if you then go to the Radiotagbot site you can login using Twitter and see the tags you have created.

Screenshot of radiotagbot website.

Screenshot of radiotagbot website.

This work derives from RadioTAG, which makes it possible to select a point in time on a channel on a physical internet-connected radio, and then connect that via the DNS system to services that allow you to do something with that information. These services could be bookmarking something for later to resume playing, or to find out what was playing (or who was speaking) at the time, or something else. Currently RadioTAG can only be used using a few specific types of radio (with specific software), and only within our trial system.

For wide adoption it's important for us to know whether this type of service would actually be used, and what it would be used for. This Twitter version of it is a lightweight way for us to gather feedback on the ideas.

This implementation is a relatively small change to the codebase used in RadioTAG, and uses the same backend infrastructure:

  • A tagging web service, which uses an Solr-powered database of metadata about programmes, channels and iPlayer availability
  • An authentication server
  • A web site

The main difference is that the physical device authentication is not required. Instead, any tweet to @radiotagbot is stored, and authentication only occurs when you log into the site to view your tags. The other addition is code that connects to Twitter's API every 30 seconds, looks for messages directed at @radiotagbot, parses those tweets looking for variants of radio and tv channel names, creating a tag and responding on Twitter if it finds a result.

If you're on Twitter, we'd be delighted if you'd give it a try. Feedback should go to me at @libbymiller or by email to

I'd like to thank Richard Northover, who had the idea to use Twitter in this way, and provided many helpful comments on the implementation, and Steve Bowbrick, who provided great feedback as well as help in deciding on the usecases to target.

IRFS Weeknotes #128

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Pete Warren Pete Warren | 12:06 UK time, Thursday, 8 November 2012

Ah, Weeknotes 128: a number of mathematical, computational and musical interest, and it's no coincidence that the prime factor of 128 is 2, which is the number of weeks of activities glued together in this post like a delicious Bourbon biscuit. Mmmm, biscuits...

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Sibyl Recommender Update

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Chris Newell | 16:20 UK time, Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Sibyl, our privacy preserving recommender prototype has been running for a few months during which we've received a variety of comments from users. In response to this feedback we've updated Sibyl with a simplified user interface and an improved recommender model.

Sibyl Recommender Prototype (V2)

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3 Years of the R&D Blog- Time for a Review & a Change

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Ant Miller Ant Miller | 15:37 UK time, Thursday, 1 November 2012

This is a little more introverted than most posts on this blog- rather than considering the future of alternative television or radio platforms, the time has come to consider the platform that this blog itself is hosted on.  Since November 2009 when Matthew Postgate wrote the first post on this platform we have produced an average of 10 posts per month, and three years down the road we think this a great archive of three years in the life of a very busy department.  We've had dozens of videos, attended and reported back on events, run a weeknotes diary and generally tried to share with you as much as we possibly can of the work we get up to in this team.

For all of those three years we have been sitting on a version of Movable Type that the great team behind all our BBC Blog shoehorned into the wider BBC webarchitecture.  No one would pretend it was an easy fit, and to this day the role of blog host includes a good deal of counselling for the new authors trying to get to grips with it's perculiarities.  The "modules" system baffles me.  Now though the rest of the BBC's infrastructure has moved on- it's a far more resillient and productive system.  Scalable, flexible and capable of hosting a huge range of functional pages, the system now really struggles to accommodate our clunky old MT set up.  So, end of November, MT gets turned off.

These posts will remain, as will your comments (though new comments on old posts won't be possible, and we won't be able to edit posts).  No new posts in MT will be possible.  So, the question facing us is what we use as a CMS to handle the blogging commincation we want to share with you.  We've a range of options, and rest assured that we'll try something interesting (we are R&D after all!).

The question facing YOU though is rather different.  What we want to ask you for is what have you found most interesting over the last three years?  What post most amazed you, or baffled you?  What post do you wish we could follow up on? What did you think was bizarre and what do you think we should be doing, but never heard about?  Post comments bellow and let us know how you felt this last 36 months of discussion and dialogue has gone, and we'll use that to help us figure out how we do it from December onwards.

I can promise only one thing- we'll stay interesting!

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