BBC R&D

Posted by Chris Baume, Simon Highfield on

BBC Notes is a new web app that shows text, images, and links to audiences to enhance their listening experience during live events, live broadcasts, and on demand. This information is shown at specific times to guide listeners through the programme and to illustrate the story or music. On August 6th, Notes will have its first public trial at the BBC Philharmonic's performance at Prom 24: Relaxed Prom.

Why have we developed BBC Notes?

Radio programmes tell stories using music, words and sounds. However, visual information could be used to aid this type of storytelling. The prevalence of smartphones, tablets and laptops provide the opportunity to display this information to the audience.

Our earlier work in the Venue Explorer project enhanced the experience for audiences at live events by using text and images to add narrative elements, such as you would get with radio football commentary or in a printed concert programme. The BBC Philharmonic saw that by sending information to audiences they could tell the stories behind the music as it happens. Their hope was that this feature would help break down barriers for people who may not be familiar with orchestral concerts, and attract younger audience members who have grown up with smartphones and multi-screen experiences. Since 2016, the orchestra has been using Venue Explorer to deliver timed ‘programme notes’ to share these stories with the concert hall audience using their smartphones.

A screenshot from the Notes app showing some text explaining what is happening in a piece of classical music.

More recently, we developed an ‘enhanced podcast player’ that presented additional information to listeners, such as transcripts, images, graphs and links to sources. We tested the player with the Radio 4 programme ‘More or Less’ to visualise data and to fact-check discussion items.

The user feedback we received from Venue Explorer and Even More or Less was very positive, and there was clearly an appetite for more content to be offered this way. However, rather than continuing to build one-off prototypes, we wanted to produce a flexible, scalable, re-usable system that could be used to enhance any programme in any genre.

Screenshots of a graph showing sugar consumption in Even More or Less.

What’s special about BBC Notes?

BBC Notes is unique in that it can be used in so many scenarios: by audiences attending live events; by audiences listening to live broadcasts online or over-the-air; and by audiences listening on demand. It is important that programme notes are displayed at exactly the right time, but each of these listening scenarios has a different amount of delay. For example, the processing required to broadcast live radio over the internet takes several seconds longer than the processing for FM. We compensated for this by asking users how they are listening so that we could provide the correct amount of delay.

A screenshot from the BBC Notes app asking users to select where they are listening to the programme - at the venue, on the radio, or on demand.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was designing the system in a way that could send notes to potentially hundreds of thousands of people that might be listening to a live performance on the radio. Venue Explorer used WebSockets to create direct connections to devices for sending real-time information, but this limited us to only a few hundred connections per server. To overcome this limitation, we used a product called AppSync to handle Websockets in a way that can automatically scale to millions of users in an efficient and cost-effective way. We will find out how successful this approach is in our upcoming trials.

A concert audience use the Notes app on their smartphones.

Besides the challenge of serving a large number of devices, we also needed to cater for different users and scenarios. We designed Notes as a web app so that it can be viewed on any browser-enabled device, such as smartphones and tablets, without having to install an app. Using a browser also allows children to access Notes if they do not have permission to install apps. We have also made the system accessible by using text-to-speech to generate audio description, and by including support for screen readers. This will allow visually impaired listeners, or those who can’t look at their phone (if doing chores for example), to have the information read out to them.

In the design of Notes, we included some experimental new features in an attempt to provide additional context and background knowledge for younger or new audiences. We added a timeline with key dates, to provide some historical context. We also included the ability to see a definition of any jargon used by simply clicking on underlined words. We will use audience feedback to discover whether people find these useful.

Where can I try Notes?

Our first scheduled public test is at the BBC Philharmonic’s performance at Prom 24: Relaxed Prom. Relaxed performances are suitable for children and adults with autism, sensory or communication impairments and learning disabilities, as well as individuals who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind or partially sighted. Notes will be used in two ways for this performance: to give greater insight into the music through tweet-length notes timed with the music; and as a communication tool to show the audience what to listen out for, and how far through a piece of music the orchestra is.

A scene showing one of the Proms concerts taking place in the Royal Albert Hall

This concert is not being broadcast or available on demand so you’ll only be able to use Notes if you’re in the audience. If you can’t make it to Prom 24: Relaxed Prom, the BBC Philharmonic will be using BBC Notes at every single concert in their 2019-2020 Bridgewater Hall season. You can purchase tickets or you can listen on your radio or browser-enabled device and follow along online. We will update this page with the link once there is content available.

We will be making BBC Notes available as a platform to other producers (inside and outside of the BBC) who are interested in using it. If you are a producer and would like to use Notes for your programme, then please do get in touch!

What’s next?

We are currently gathering audience feedback on Notes, and other enhanced listening interfaces, to help us better understand how they affect the listening experience. We will use a survey to ask attendees of the Relaxed Prom: why they did or did not use Notes; whether it added to their experience or not; and how it affected their enjoyment of the music. We hope to continue this more regularly throughout the Bridgewater Hall season to understand whether this is a service to which people return.

Meanwhile, we are also conducting a formal qualitative study of enhanced podcast experiences. This will help us understand what sort of information the audience value most (text, images, links and so on), and how this is affected by their listening environment.

Finally, we are interested in exploring the potential of Notes as a creative storytelling tool. We would like to experiment with other types of programmes and content to see what can be achieved. As such, we will work to support and train interested producers to use the Notes platform to create new content.

Thanks

Thanks to the BBC Philharmonic for sponsoring the development of BBC Notes and for contributing to the design through producer workshops, trials and user feedback. Our thanks also go to the BBC Proms Publication team for their input and for their help in organising the public trial at the Proms. Finally, we would like to thank our developer Tom Dodds for his sterling effort in delivering this system.

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