LONDON — By using voice-to-text comprehension services, internet-connected “smart speakers” with internal microphones such as Amazon Echo and Google Home can fulfill spoken requests from users. Ask your Amazon Echo smart speaker, “What is the weather like?” and this unit will search the web, find the data, and then speak the results; such as “mild and sunny.”
The listener plays an active role in BBC R&D’s “The Inspection Chamber,” by talking to the play’s characters through a smart speaker.
Credit: BBC R&D video capture
It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder just how interactive smart speakers could become, with respect to “conversing” with their human users. That’s a question being tackled in dramatic form by the BBC’s R&D department. In partnership with the London audio production firm Rosina Sound, BBC R&D is developing a smart speaker-specific radio drama called “The Inspection Chamber,” where the listener plays a pivotal and influential role in determining the action.
In this offbeat “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Franz Kafka”-style storyline, the listener provides vocal answers to questions posed by The Inspection Chamber’s computer and two “scientists.” Those responses affect what the computer and scientists say and ask next, and how the plot line progresses. Now in production, The Inspection Chamber is scheduled to be posted on the BBC Taster idea-sharing website before year’s end.
“The Inspection Chamber uses the kind of flexible storylines found in video games, where a preset sequence of actions leads up to various listener-controlled decision points,” said BBC R&D Producer Henry Cooke. “In this case, it is the response of the listener to various questions posed to them throughout the play that determines the shape of the story. Different listener answers result in different dramatic outcomes.”
The more questions the listener answers, the more they shape the storyline of “The Inspection Chamber.”
Credit: BBC R&D video capture
AN ALIEN INQUISITION
Judging by a preview audio selection available at the BBC R&D department’s blog, The Inspection Chamber starts off innocently enough. A computer named “Dave” says in halting tones, “The scientists are nearly ready to meet you and start the inspection. You’re not one we’ve seen before, and it’s the job of the scientists to identify everything we’ve never seen before ... You might even be the last thing they have to identify before they go home.”
This last point is important, said Cooke, “because the scientists are impatient to go home.” Without giving away too many details, the scientists may not be entirely human — and the listener is just another sample within their Inspection Chamber that has to be dealt with. The impatient scientists are not exactly respectful of their sample’s feelings, Cooke noted. At the outset, “one of them says to the other, ‘Can it hear us? Does it even have ears?’” he said.
Once the inspection process begins — an interrogation, to be specific — the scientists probe the listener with a range of questions. According to Cooke, the initial questions are trivial, but the later questions are quite probing, with the scientists asking the listener soul-searching queries such as, “Do you think humanity is fundamentally cruel or kind?”
Neither the preview audio selection nor Henry Cooke would reveal the possible outcomes to the listener who participates in “The Inspection Chamber.” But what is certain is that the listener is an active participant in this radio play, rather than a typical passive observer. “You are literally a fourth character in the action, and what you say affects what happens next,” Cooke said. “This is the level of interactivity made possible by smart speakers.”
Who are the scientists interrogating listeners to “The Inspection Chamber”? Could they be aliens from outer space?
Credit: The February 1956 cover of Science Fiction Quarterly magazine, via Wiki Commons
HOW IT’S DONE
The fact that smart speakers employ voice recognition to “understand” what their users are saying is central to The Inspection Chamber’s interactivity. “This part of the translation process is done for us by the smart speakers themselves,” said Cooke.
Taking that text and using it to determine which audio clip to play next is the job of BBC R&D’s story engine. The story engine has to analyze each submitted text-from-voice listener response, and then select the audio clip that makes the most sense in relation to it. In doing so, the engine also sets the plot line heading down a specific path; just as a video game does when a player encounters a video “fork in the road,” and decides whether to go left or right.
“Our story engine is smart speaker-agnostic, meaning that it can work with a broad range of speaker makes and models,” Cooke said. “This ensures the widest possible reach for ‘The Inspection Chamber’ when it comes out.”
Using a video game programming structure allows BBC R&D to create a defined multi-option interactive play that can cope with all kinds of listener responses. “We built tools that enable us to edit the story without having to change any code in the engine,” said Cooke, “which means we’re able to amend and adapt the experience efficiently and flexibly as the story is refined.”
A BRAVE NEW WORLD?
At press time, The Inspection Chamber was due to be posted online in early November. It will be interesting to see what impact this play will have on BBC listeners, and how this form of interactivity may affect the future of radio drama.
But one thing is certain: The necessary technology is already in place. “Based on the online statistics that the BBC collects, we know that there is a large group of people listening to our streams over smart speakers today,” said Henry Cooke. “So the equipment is there now to let people interact with The Inspection Chamber. What we don’t know is how the listeners actually talk back to the computer and the scientists when they finally get the chance.”
James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.