Digital radio offers to get personal

Meg Carter gets a sneak preview of the new digital radios that have been specially designed for the BBC
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The Independent Culture
In all the industry excitement surrounding the launch of digital broadcasting this summer, radio has been the poor cousin to bigger, brasher TV. Until now. In an attempt to kick-start manufacturers' imaginations, the BBC has commissioned its own designs of how the humble radio set might evolve in the brave new digital media world. The results look likely to revolutionise the industry's thinking.

The aim was to create a new visual icon for radio, explains Glyn Jones, BBC digital radio managing editor. "Radio has been left behind in the digital debate - which is understandable, because TV is a much bigger business," he says. "Yet people listen to radio for on average three hours a day - the same length of time they spend watching television. And while 4 million TV sets are sold each year, 12 million radios are sold."

From the early days of the cat's whisker, through the valve wireless sets of the Thirties and Forties, the bakelite era and the development in the Seventies of lightweight portables, the radio set has undergone a sequence of major design changes. However, since becoming integrated into stacked hi-fi and in-car entertainment systems, it has suffered an identity crisis.

"By the early Eighties, the radio set had reached a point in its life cycle where manufacturers were more focused on price than on product differentiation," says Jones. "Today, radios may be very cheap, but that doesn't mean they are actively sold. Ask for one, and you'll be directed to the back of a shop and left to get on with it yourself."

Ironically, this has coincided with a period of extraordinary growth in radio. The rapid expansion of commercial radio resulted in unprecedented station choice and increased listening. Now, digital broadcasting promises further enhancements.

Digital transmissions will allow more stations to be transmitted in a bandwidth previously able to carry just a few. It also promises CD-quality sound, easier tuning, reduced signal interference and the broadcast of visual images as part of radio transmissions. The first digital sets are already available, though so far only 200 or so are in use in the UK - which is hardly surprising, as early prototypes cost around pounds 1,500.

The mass-market launch of digital radio - with sets priced at between pounds 100 and pounds 200 - is expected this summer. Last week the BBC revealed details of a basic, two-button digital set it has commissioned from one manufacturer, Ensigma, to gauge how cheaply a simple digital receiver could be made. The "two-button tuner" works on the click of a button, with no need for manual tuning, and could be produced for as little as pounds 100 plus assembly costs.

Retail prices are expected to fall sharply with future generations of radio sets. "Our concern, however, is that manufacturers have focused more on technology than design," Jones explains. Which is where the product design specialists IDEO come in.

The BBC approached IDEO to develop hypothetical designs for a new generation of radio sets. "Our brief was to develop a vision," explains Nick Dormon, a senior designer. "The last thing the BBC wants is for digital radio to be 'just another black box'." IDEO, however, let its imagination run riot. Up to a point: every function it promises is technologically possible.

IDEO developed a variety of set designs catering for a range of tomorrow's radio listening needs. At the heart of the proposed product range is the "IDEO radio", a squat, flying-saucer-shaped set with a rounded dome housing an LCD screen. The main control is a removable key that can be personalised for different family members' programming tastes. Detachable speakers rest on either side.

"The design is intended to be horizontal, rather than the vertical proportions of the TV set," Dormon points out. A hierarchy of information can be displayed on the LCD screen, including station identities and programme synopses - all of which will be transmitted alongside sound within a digital radio broadcast.

Users will be able to replay, pre-record programmes or set the radio to store the last news or traffic report by touching different icons shown on the flat-top screen. This is because it will be easier to tag individual elements of digital radio broadcasts than is currently possible with RDS technology. Stations will also be able to provide added value by transmitting pictures accompanying sound for children's programmes, text messages carrying financial news or weather updates.

Other designs developed by IDEO include "Jean", a personalised, Walkman- style portable radio designed to "live" with its user and learn his or her listening habits. "It's built on the belief that in the future, appliances will become increasingly personally programmable," Dorman says.

So "Jean" could interface with other appliances, for example pre-programming the car radio what to broadcast, or transferring preferences to speakers, TV or computer screen via an infrared link.

Radio, Dormon believes, promises to be the most "human" interface between people and the new generation of digital technology. Jones agrees: "There is a tremendous opportunity for radio to carve a new niche for itself in the digital broadcasting environment," he says. If manufacturers are ready to take up the broadcaster's challenge, that is.

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