Imagining Radio’s Future at CES

Dave Wilson eyes new toys — and thinks wistfully of what could be
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The author owns WHDX(FM) and WHDZ(FM), Buxton, N.C., on Hatteras Island. He is senior director, technology & standards at the Consumer Electronics Association. His commentaries are a recurring feature of Radio World’s opinion section. Views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of CEA or its member companies.

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Abbee records a radio station’s broadcast, strips out the commercials, DJ talk, sweepers, bumpers, etc., and allows the consumer to delete individual songs from the recorded collection. The 2010 International CES in Las Vegas was a tremendous success, in my view. CEA’s preliminary registration figures had more than 120,000 industry professionals in attendance, and the conversations on the show floor were of a consumer electronics industry that’s turning the corner in the latest economic cycle and looking forward to growth fueled by 3D TV, green technology and Internet-connected everything.

As I walked the show floor, I noted products that fit into my vision of what radio broadcasting should become. That vision is of a service whose content, like time-shifted TV programs and Internet podcasts, is no longer consumed predominantly in real time.

It’s of a service that, like Internet service and satellite TV, is a very effective distribution system whose final hop to the consumer device is over a standardized, ubiquitous path like Wi-Fi. And it’s of a service whose revenue comes from advertising, but advertising that consumers seek out on their terms, like Internet search.

The first product that caught my eye was the Abbee from Myine Electronics, which was honored by CEA with an Innovations Award for being one of the most innovative products of the year.

The Abbee is a $250 FM receiver that records a radio station’s broadcast, strips out the commercials, DJ talk, sweepers, bumpers, etc., and allows the consumer to delete individual songs from the recorded collection [also see Radio World CES coverage in the Feb. 10 issue].

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The HiFiMAN portable music player incorporates two high-end digital-to-analog conversion chips capable of up to 120 dB signal-to-noise ratio and 112 dB of dynamic range. This product actually hit the market just before Thanksgiving and I immediately purchased one. I was skeptical as to how well it could do what it promised, but after using it for several weeks I have to say I’m quite impressed.

Only twice in four weeks has it mistakenly recorded some DJ banter. The music it records is stored on a small portable player that’s easy to take anywhere.

When the player transitions from one song to the next, it fades down and back up, a feature that helps mask the fact that some of the songs have their beginnings or endings truncated, probably because there was DJ talk or a sweeper running over the song. The fading between songs makes the chopped off portions hardly noticeable in many cases.

Another cool product was the Tivit, a device the size of a typical smart phone that receives mobile DTV signals over the air and rebroadcasts them using Wi-Fi frequencies.

A person with a Tivit can download an app to a smart phone that will let the smart phone communicate with the Tivit and use it to tune and view mobile DTV signals.

Think of the Tivit as a wireless router for mobile DTV. It can sit on a shelf and turn any Wi-Fi-enabled smart phone within range of its Wi-Fi signal into a mobile DTV receiver.

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The Tivit can sit on a shelf and turn any Wi-Fi enabled smart phone within range of its Wi-Fi signal into a mobile DTV receiver. Phones themselves only need Wi-Fi capability, they don’t need a mobile DTV tuner. PCs can also become mobile DTV receivers by connecting to the Tivit’s USB port.

Development of the Tivit for U.S. viewers is funded in partly the Open Mobile Video Coalition. The Tivit will be available this spring and is expected to list for under $120.

Fond thoughts

It’s easy to imagine a device that combines the features of both the Tivit and the Abbee, giving radio broadcasters a way to provide personalized service to their listeners. For example, imagine a Tivit-like device that receives radio broadcasts, but instead of simply rebroadcasting them over Wi-Fi it saves the radio content in on-board memory, like the Abbee does.

However, unlike the Abbee, it saves everything that’s broadcast, including sponsors’ content, in packages that can be easily sorted and filtered. When a Wi-Fi-enabled device like a smart phone is in range, the “Rivit,” as I’d call it, performs a handshake with the smart phone and determines what type of content is appropriate for the phone. It then transfers that content to the phone.

Let’s say I’m a college student who has used the Rivit app on my smart phone to indicate an interest in football and basketball content related to my school. I don’t have a car so I’ve indicated no interest in traffic reports.

The Rivit would receive and store content related to my school’s basketball team, content related to my school’s football team, traffic reports and all other content from local radio stations. When my smart phone is within range of the Rivit’s Wi-Fi signal the football and basketball content would be transferred to my phone, but the traffic reports would not.

Imagine a Rivit installed in my car. It charges while the car’s running and has enough battery life to keep recording from the moment I arrive home in the evening through my departure for work the next day. Thus, each morning when I start the car to head to work the Rivit would handshake with my radio and transfer all of the content relevant to me that’s been received overnight.

For example, as I drive to work perhaps I would like a rundown of all quarterly earnings reports from public companies that were released the previous day. This could be broadcast in the middle of the night, with embedded sponsor messages from a local bank or broker.

It would be ready for me to play on-demand as I drive to work. Suddenly those sponsor messages broadcast at 3 a.m. would be a lot more valuable.

(But I digress. This is a report about the 2010 International CES, and sadly I didn’t see a Rivit at CES because, in my opinion, the radio industry is obsessed with trying to coerce smart phone makers into putting radio tuners in their devices. It can’t seem to recognize that it could instead take matters into its own hands with a Rivit-like device. Does DirecTV whine to the government and anyone else who will listen about the paucity of TVs with built-in DirecTV tuners? No. It builds set-top boxes. So does Dish Network. So does virtually everyone else in a similar situation. Contrast this with the radio industry’s behavior. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to be a radio broadcaster. But again, I digress.)

Under the tent

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The PowerShade solar field shelter is a tent whose top has thin, flexible solar panels woven into it. Another thing I saw at CES was the PowerShade solar field shelter from PowerFilm. It’s a tent whose top has thin, flexible solar panels woven into it. The panels are durable. They can be walked on, and if one of them gets punctured only the solar generating capacity in the immediate vicinity of the puncture is lost, not the whole rectangular panel.

The PowerShade would be really cool for a remote broadcast. The 1 kilowatt version costs $25,000 which includes the tent, the inverters for the solar panels and everything. It’s pricey, but perhaps a worthwhile marketing expense if you’re positioning your station as a green operation.

Another neat thing I saw on the show floor was the HiFiMAN portable music player. It’s a high-end portable music player and is perfect for all those people who complain about the quality of compressed music libraries over portable players.

The HiFiMAN retails for $799. It incorporates two high-end digital-to-analog conversion chips capable of up to 120 dB signal-to-noise ratio and 112 dB of dynamic range. It has both line and headphone outputs, and the headphone amplifier board is designed to be removable, enabling device owners to purchase other amp boards from other manufacturers to suit their individual tastes.

The HiFiMAN can also play audio fed to it through its USB and coax inputs. As storage capacity and processing capability continue to become more and more affordable it seems logical to assume that many, and perhaps most, consumers will be listening to uncompressed portable audio through high-quality portable amplifiers in the not too distant future.

There was quite a selection of HD Radio products on the show floor too. But my space is limited and HD Radio is covered well by others in these pages, so I’ll leave it to them.

The International CES is a lot a fun. I hope to see you there next year.

Radio World welcomes other points of view toradioworld@nbmedia.com.

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