Personal broadcasting

Sometimes I find myself daydreaming about inventions I would create if I a) were motivated enough, b) had enough time, and c) had any skill as an engineer. Typically these ideas just continue to rattle around in my head, never to see the light of day. But I figure why not dream out loud. So I will occasionally post these crazy ideas.

One of the ideas I’ve mulled over ever since Microsoft introduced the Zune is the concept of “personal broadcasting.” When the Zune came out it had an intriguing but, in my opinion, ultimately useless feature … the ability to share song temporarily with another zune user wirelessly.

I say the feature was useless mainly because of its limitations. First, you could only share a song once. And second, the shared song was only available to the recipient for three days. Microsoft did try to address some of these issues in a later update, but the unpopular feature was eventually removed from the device altogether.

Still I found myself imagining the potential of something like this if only it were implemented a bit differently. Instead of transferring a file between two Zune devices what Microsoft should have done was give each device the ability to stream music from one player to another, the transmitting user acting as a DJ for the recipient.

On initial view this doesn’t appear much different from what the Zune could do when it was released. In fact it may seem less useful since the devices have to remain in close proximity during use while the implemented transfer function allowed the shared song to be played anytime after transfer. However, if we explore the social aspect of this type of functionality we begin to see where it could truly blossom. Providing a simple tweak we can not only play DJ to our friends, but to any person in our vicinity who is interested, anonymously and by request. Social networking in meatspace.

Let me break down how I imagine this happening in a custom-built device.

1) The device includes an option to allow others to listen in on the music you are currently playing. If this option is enabled your device sends out an occasional ping. This ping lets other devices in the immediate vicinity know that they can connect and includes some basic information about the currently playing song.

2) The device also includes an option to alert you if anyone is broadcasting. If this option is enabled the device will pop up a notice when a broadcasting device is found. The notice would show the song being played on the other device and ask if you want to listen.

3) Saying yes causes the two devices to form an ad hoc connection and the broadcaster to stream the current song to the listener.

And that’s it. Toss in a basic feedback mechanism (thumbs up/thumbs down) and maybe even an optional chat client and you’ve got a really interesting real-world social platform.

I don’t think this would be a huge engineering challenge. The ability to form ad hoc networks has already been figured out. The communication protocols could be built on top of something like RTSP and HTTP. Ideally this could be implemented in software and use the hardware already built into modern devices so that “broadcasting” could occur across devices.

Probably the biggest hurdle would be the recording industry, but I think even they could see the value in something like this. You’re potentially expanding the reach of artists to a larger audience. And there would naturally be the potential sales channel using pervasive links to online music stores, providing more opportunities to impulse buy new music.