By Mark Boas
Hyperaudio is a term coined by Henrik Moltke. After discovering we had similar interests we started working on the concept a while back, resulting in a few demos such as the Radiolab demo for WNYC. That was a couple of years ago now. Since then I have been working with my colleague Mark Panaghiston on various Hyperaudio demos and thinking about how we can create an suite of tools I imaginatively call the Hyperaudio Ecosystem, at the center of that ecosystem sits the Hyperaudio Pad.
What is Hyperaudio?
But hey, let’s back up a bit. What is this Hyperaudio of which I speak? Simply put, Hyperaudio aims to do for audio what hypertext did for text – that is to integrate audio fully into the web experience. I wrote more about that here.
The Hyperaudio Pad is a tool that enables people to build up or remix audio and video using the underlying timed-transcripts. At the moment we’re concentrating on transcribing the spoken word.
Over the last seven days or so me and the other Mark have been working fairly solidly on taking the Hyperaudio Pad to the next level. It’s great to work with Mark P for several reasons. Obviously as key author of jPlayer he knows pretty much all there is to know about web based media, but also although we are both developers we are in many ways diametrically opposed. Mark is keen on code quality and doing things properly and I just want to get things out there. Happily the compromise we arrive at when we work together is a usually a good one. Mark is coming around to minimal-viable solutions and I have to admit that doing things right can save time in the long-run.
In fact there is a world of difference between earlier versions of the Hyperaudio Pad and that I largely developed and the version we have now after a week of collaboration.
Putting our weird Renée and Renato relationship aside for a bit, let’s talk a little about what it is that the Hyperaudio Pad is actually meant to do.
The Power of the Remix
OK, so key aims here are really to encourage the remixing of media in a new and refreshingly easy way – in doing so promote media literacy. On the subject of remixing at its importance in counter-culture I’d encourage you to check out RIP! : A Remix Manifesto and the excellent Everything is a Remix series.
Actually Brett Gaylor of Remix Manifesto fame is doing similar work by leading the effort building sequencing into Popcorn Maker. We’re approaching the same objective from completely different angles.
Although we use the Popcorn.js library at the heart of the Hyperaudio Pad, we use text to describe and represent media content. This may seem counter intuitive but actually transcripts can be a great way to navigate media content. Transcripts help break media out of it’s black box and we can scan and search through it relatively quickly. The Hyperaudio Pad borrows from the word-processor paradigm allowing people to copy blocks of transcript and associated media and further, allowing them to describe transitions, effects, adjust volumes using natural language that resemble editing directions in a script.
As an example of some transitions and effects you can currently insert between clips:
[fade through black over 2 seconds, apply effects nightvision, scanlines, tvglitch] currently works.
which is equivalent to:
[fade black 2 apply nightvision scanlines tvglitch]
but we want to encourage the user to be descriptive as these directions are both human and computer readable.
Other effects include : ascii, colorcube, emboss, invert, noise, ripple, scanlines, sepia, sketch, vignette
This system will evolve of course, and we hope to allow stuff like:
[change volume to 50% over 3 seconds, change brightness to 20% over 2 seconds, play track 'love me do' from 30 seconds to 35 seconds, change track volume from 0 to 80% over 2 seconds]
(stuff like that)
Transcript snippets, combined with text described transitions and effects act as a kind of source code for the media.
As cuts are nothing more than weak references to media files, start and end times and effects that are simply layered — in real-time — over the top, we can make additive remixes as easily as we can subtractive ones, that is to say, somebody could take a remix and enhance it by peeling back a specific snippet to reveal more, thereby adding to the piece.
In fact a key goal here is to allow remixing of remixes.
So a bit about more about the technology powering this. Effects are handled by Brian Chirls‘ seriously cool Seriously.js – a comprehensive video compositing library. The great thing about Seriously.js is that it is a modular system. We can add effects (and load their code dynamically) as we go. I also look forward to using some of our experience gained with the Web Audio API to apply realtime audio effects. The wider vision is to make a system that will take raw media, transcribe it and allow you to do all the things you could do with a professional video editing package.
We’ve got plenty more to do, certainly some bugs to iron out, but we’re steadily approaching beta. A lot has been restructured behind the scenes, giving us a more stable platform to build on and more quickly enhance. The question I posed and answered on Twitter. What do you call something between alpha and beta? Alpha.
We still plan to add the following features in the near future :
- alter brightness, contrast, saturation etc
- control and fade volume
- add audio track that can be played simultaneously or sequentially
- add effects/transitions in paragraph etc
- allow editing right down to the word, delete words
- allow fine tuning of start and end points
- allow the playback and sharing of fullscreen video remixes with an option to see the underlying ‘source code’.
If you want to play around yourself you can find the latest demo here.
Sourcecode is on GitHub (I should get around to adding an MIT license or something)
Or you can watch a screen recording of where we were at as of yesterday. Apologies for the choppy quality, oh and the background music, it seemed a good idea at the time.
By Mark Panaghiston.
“Perceptive Media, takes narrative back to something more aligned to a storyteller and an audience around a campfire using internet technologies and sensibility to create something closer to a personal theatre experience in your living room.”
With this article we want to look at the technical aspects in greater detail than our previous blog post on the subject.
By Mark Boas
Sometimes when we take on projects we don’t really know what we’re letting ourselves in for. To fully know, we’d spec things out to the ninth degree and who wants to or has time for that? Well people like NASA do, but we don’t.
When we were given the opportunity to work on something called Perceptive Media all I saw was a colourful but amorphous form ahead and although it was explained to me (as well it could be) I still didn’t have a real clue of what it would end up being and crucially what was involved in making it a reality.
But hey it’s the BBC right? You don’t often get to work with the BBC – you know that BBC you spent so much time watching and listening to when you were growing up. The same BBC who make Doctor Who ? – That BBC!
Time-lords aside (or not actually as the case may be), being a bit of an audio-geek I’ve always been fascinated by the BBC’s audio output especially their Radiophonic Workshop especially Delia Derbyshire’s work and this was an audio gig coming from the R&D department of the same organisation. How could we turn it down?
So I jumped at the chance without really knowing what lay in store, which incidentally is very unfair on my colleague who ended up doing the lion’s share of the work.
The brief went something like this : We want to create a web-audio based demo that will adjust its content to the listener, based on information we can ascertain about them. Oh and we want it to sound as natural as possible so that the listener may not suspect that the content is being tailored. I soon found out that this involved generating audio on-the-fly and applying convolution reverb and other effects so that audio sounded natural in various environments. What this all meant is that we needed to use an advanced audio API. Now I’ve had fun investigating advanced audio APIs before, they differ from the standard audio APIs by being designed to allow you not only to play audio files, but to generate and alter audio.
This is exciting because we are finally getting around to doing stuff with audio that we have been doing with text for years. It also crosses over with something I’m looking at called Hyperaudio.
So with this cross-over in mind, I felt I could manage to find the time to experiment and create some proof of concept demos and this lead me to try out the following libraries:
The Speak.js demo pretty much demonstrates what it can do. You put text in and speech comes out. The library itself is ported from eSpeak using something called Emscripten and actually allows you to generate audio pretty much in real-time by constructing a data URI in WAV format.
Unfortunately time and budget restrictions meant that we couldn’t create the version we wanted to make – a version that would work similarly in all browsers that provided an advanced audio API. As it seems that the future W3C standard for advanced audio will be based on the Web Audio API we decided to concentrate on that.
The data we use to personalise the broadcast comes from a number of sources. The main differentiator is the listener’s location which we use via the geo-location API to determine, local weather, radio streams and landmarks which are then subtly inserted into the audio stream. The only restriction is that you must be in the UK to really encounter the differences – this is partly due to the fact that we use some BBC resources that are only available for the UK but also so that we can keep the data manageable for what, after all, is just a demo.
The second source of information about the listener came from a slightly more sinister place. For fun I’d been working with a good friend of mine Matteo Spinelli on a project called Underpants and while looking at the issue of browser traceability across websites we figured out how to determine which social networks a browser is logged into. Cross-over struck once more and we used this technique to personalise the part where our outdoor-challenged hero is urged to log out of her favourite social network and leave the apartment.
Advanced Web Audio
So what changes between the version of the broadcast that uses the Web Audio API and the fallback version that doesn’t? Well there are a number of factors, some of them quite subtle. Speak.js outputs a robot style voice which is fine for our use as the electronic voice of the lift. But we wanted to make sure it would fit in properly to the various environments in which it was set. To do this we created something called a convolution-reverb. In short, a this reverb allows us to apply the right sort of audio ambiance to a sound. So if a sound is coming from a lift we apply a lift type echo. We also apply the same ‘echo’ to the streamed radio broadcast that is played at a certain point in the broadcast.
The fact that we are using an advanced audio API also enables us to add various other effects to other pieces of audio. However we soon found that we needed to be sensible with our audio design, since convolutions with the Web Audio API does take a up a fair amount of CPU. During a development error, a unique convolution was used for each sound, this was found to start failing at around the 14th.
We also made use of audio filters, for example the radio podcast uses a high-pass filter applied to it which makes it sound ‘tinny’, another example is when Harriet opens the her apartment door at the start we apply both filters and faders. The Web Audio API uses a node based approach which means that you can feed the results of one effect into the next so we can apply filters, faders and convolutions to any audio source. To achieve all of this we made heavy use of Web Audio API’s AudioParam which allows nearly any attribute to be changed using handy linear transform effects – we used this to fade in and out, or cross-fade between filtered and unfiltered outputs.
So the Web Audio API version applies filters, faders and convolutions to the audio whereas the standard HTML5 audio versions do not. That’s not to say that given enough time we couldn’t have achieved the same effect using the Audio Data API included in Firefox. But since the new audio standard is slated to be largely based on the Web Audio API it was decided for the purposes of this demo to concentrate our energy in this area.
Once we’d got the core of the functionality working, we set to work on creating a control panel to allow us to tweak every single one of the volumes, filters, faders and convolutions.
We wanted to be able to demonstrate to editors of audio how we could tweak pace, reverb and sound-effects in real-time and although requiring a complete code re-factor we hope that the fact that the whole thing is pretty-much customisable makes this a powerful demo and will be useful to others as well as ourselves who are dabbling in this area.
So this is a good time to mention that all the source-code is open source and that you can grab it from the following GitHub location https://github.com/happyworm/PerceptiveMedia.
I think this was definitely an interesting and worthwhile experiment. However as its aim was to be subtle, it purposely does not make immediately clear the potential of the technology. Technically what we are able to achieve turned out to be a kind of audio framework to allow the ability to create and tweak audio as it’s being played. This is useful to producers of audio to see how effects and timings can alter the experience and is especially useful for applications such as games where perhaps you want to give your sound-effects context. I also feel that these techniques could be used for applications such as dynamic story-telling. My daughter — all too often — asks me to tell her a story featuring robots, dinosaurs and goblins and all too often I fall back on the same old principles and formulas of children’s story-telling, the rule of three and so on. Post happy-ever-after she often wants me to add to the story, getting me to fill-in or clarify some of the details. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine that we could create dynamic storytelling applications for kids. A pinch of AI here, some personalisation there and a heavy dose of randomness might just be enough to keep them happy for a bit.
So there we have it, one small step closer to the old Star Trek computer (Did Doctor Who’s have a voice interface? I forget). We’ve already seen the application of voice input with software such as Siri. It shouldn’t be too much longer until audio interfaces start to become common-place, with so much current emphasis on the visual I think this could be quite refreshing.
Question. What’s harder to debug than an intermittent bug? Answer. An intermittent bug that only manifests itself when you deploy to the server. Crazy I know and totally unexpected to us and for this reason you may see issues when running on Firefox (but not Opera). Being supporters of both Mozilla and Firefox we were much dismayed by this bug and spent a significant amount of time trying to get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately due to its nature we were only able to put in a loose bug-report If anybody wants to help us solve this issue please feel free to take a look, even if it’s just to download the application from GitHub and verify that it works locally for you.
Thanks then to Ian Forrester and Tony Churnside for the opportunity to work with them and their team at BBC R&D, also of course Sarah Glenister for the excellent script and Angie Chan for the great artwork. Jussi Kalliokoski for helping us work with AudioLib.js But most of all I want to thank my colleague Mark Panaghiston for working tirelessly behind the scenes not only on the significantly challenging audio aspects of the project but also go above and beyond in integrating the visual aspects and even sourcing and setting up the hosting.
Writing for Perceptive Media
Illustrations for BBC R&D’s Perceptive Media Demo: Breaking Out
What is Perceptive Media?
BBC demonstrates revolutionary ‘perceptive media’
Perceptive Media Launch at Social Media Cafe Manchester
The BBC unveils its first ‘Perceptive Media’ experiment – and you can try it now
What is Perceptive Media?
By Mark Boas
A few weeks ago I was asked to write a bio – explain a bit about myself in a few lines. I hate writing bios, all that faux third-personage – I never really know what to write.
The reason a bio was required was that I’d been offered a position as a Knight-Mozilla sponsored fellow with Al Jazeera – the happy end-result of a Knight-Mozilla news challenge that I have been actively enjoying over the last few months. It was agreed that I would work slightly less than full-time hours and on a largely remote basis and so I was glad to accept the fellowship knowing I could still dedicate time to my family and other interesting projects (not that I would classify my family as a project you understand). Working with Al Jazeera is of course an experience not to be missed. I couldn’t have imagined that my life would take such a turn a year ago or so, but I’m very glad that it did and I put it all down to my (broadly directionless) approach to working life.
I consider myself very lucky that because of my sedentary lifestyle I need very little money to get by. This has allowed me to follow my interests while working for our small ‘company’ Happyworm for the last 10 years. I consider this a very real success. We created a popular open source project and foster a fairly large community — from this many opportunities have arisen. Recently for example, I was asked by the W3C to run an online audio/video course and this has been a fantastic experience and now I have the opportunity to find out the world of journalism works and hopefully contribute. All this would probably not have occurred if I hadn’t simply thrown caution to the wind and followed by interests.
There are two of us now working for Happyworm, we used to be three but our web designer (also my partner) decided that at least one of us should have a steady income and generously offered to take up full-time work at a local council. So it’s just the two of us working with 3rd party designers when we need them. I’m based just outside Florence and Mark P’s in the heart of Edinburgh, although we are very different, we have similar requirements and a similar history – Mark P left a well paid job as a CMOS camera chip designer to come and work on web stuff.
This finally brings me to the title of this post, when writing my bio I foolishly used a little known, possibly non existent word, by describing Happyworm as tiny altrepreneurial web agency.
I stumbled on the word altrepreneur some years ago here : http://www.mylifecoach-online.com/MLC%20newsletter%20May%202005.htm#authentic
“The Altrepreneur, like their colleague the Entrepreneur, runs one of the 3 Million Micro Businesses in operation in the UK today. However unlike the Entrepreneur, with a financial and career focus, the Altrepreneur is doing it for entirely different reasons. It seems that 70% of those small businesses are being run because the owner/operator is focused on achieving a change in their life-style through running a small business, they are looking to increase their overall quality of life by putting in some up front hard graft. This goes hand in hand with the growing movement around Authenticity (…). The idea that the source of much tension in our lives is the conflict between our true selves and the roles that we play. Getting in touch with your true self and letting go of that tension will lead to a very different kind of life.”
“The Altrepreneur, like their colleague the Entrepreneur, runs one of the 3 Million Micro Businesses in operation in the UK today. However unlike the Entrepreneur, with a financial and career focus, the Altrepreneur is doing it for entirely different reasons.
It seems that 70% of those small businesses are being run because the owner/operator is focused on achieving a change in their life-style through running a small business, they are looking to increase their overall quality of life by putting in some up front hard graft.
This goes hand in hand with the growing movement around Authenticity (…). The idea that the source of much tension in our lives is the conflict between our true selves and the roles that we play. Getting in touch with your true self and letting go of that tension will lead to a very different kind of life.”
This article chimed very strongly with me – my objectives and the decisions I made to leave a well paid job, set up Happyworm, move to another country, be my own boss and follow my own interests where possible. We now have two children, who I am fortunate enough to see a lot of. Recently I decided to look after the 9 month old Anna in the mornings for 4 days of the working week and then work from 14:30 until midnight with a 3 hour or so (I don’t time it) break for family dinner and games. I grow vegetables, cook at least once a day and am involved in the local community centre – finally I feel like I am achieving that mythical work-life balance.
So to me the word altrepreneurial seemed a perfect concise way of explaining what I did and how I see Happyworm. Incidentally Happyworm turned 10 years old in October. You might think 10 years is pretty good going for a small company but the truth is we would never have lasted so long if we were in it for the money, we’ve had good spells but also our fair share of dry spells where we worked on open source, brewed our own beer and patched our own clothes (or at least I did). Turns out following our interests and making jPlayer has been much more of a success than we could have imagined, I think we’re approaching half a million downloads and perhaps the best measure – a community of around two and a half thousand.
Despite the money, like most people I’m not really happy working long hours on projects I’m not interested in (although through necessity I’ve done my fair share), I don’t think actually I’m any good at something my heart isn’t in. Maybe I’ve been spoiled, but the most important thing for me is to enjoy my work and so life, the money is always a secondary consideration and that’s why, contrary to what you may see written in my bio, I work for a small altreprenurial web agency – not entrepreneurial. Damn you auto-correct!
Some perspectives on the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Fellowship :
My Life as a Startup – The Road not Taken by The Guardian fellow – Nicola Hughes
Journalism in the Open: the 2011/12 Knight-Mozilla Fellows by Project Header Upper – Dan Sinker
Knight-Mozilla names news technology fellowship winners Journalism.co.uk
By Mark Boas
“O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and Ah’ll tak’ the low (road)
And Ah’ll be in Scotlan’ afore ye.” (The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond)
People really love messing about with audio.
Notice that the process of creating all this cool functionality didn’t come about from a W3C spec. Similarly, the Advanced Audio APIs were not the result of a W3C think-tank, but from two competing visions of what an advanced audio API should look like. Now it looks like the Web Audio API will be implemented in Safari as well as Chrome.
Once you create compelling functionality, developers will immediately start to use it. It may be experimental but developers will start to rely on it to make cool stuff. Cutting edge technology is seductive like that. I’m surer than sure that the Web Audio API has been well researched and has taken much inspiration from tried and tested APIs that exist outwith of our lovely browser based world (Apple’s Core Audio Frameworks, I believe), but I’m not convinced that you can really tell what web developers need or want until you give them something to play with.
*Neither Firefox or Opera support MP3 natively due to patent concerns.
I’m not saying Mozilla’s Audio Data API is perfect, there are issues with audio using the same thread as the UI and synch issues with multiple streams. However this is being addressed in the MediaStreams Processing proposal and it’s worth taking a look at it, even if it’s just for an insight into what future implementations could look like.
Strong community — Web developers have a huge active and open community to draw from.
Lower barrier to entry — The barrier of participation once something is put on something like github is virtually zero.
Ok, so bear with me here, and this is more of a question than a proposal – What if we separate concerns between browser makers and web developers when it comes to creating standards? Browser makers could concentrate on security, privacy, performance and exposing low level API’s in such a way that web developers can start to build libraries and APIs in the fluid, dynamic, iterative and extremely reactive manner that the web as a media allows. Once these libraries reach an acceptable level of adoption, browser makers can get together and decide which of these features they want to adopt based on tried and tested use cases, and yes make it a standard and build it into the browser. Wouldn’t we move forward more quickly that way? And as a bonus, no browser would be left behind as we’d be building the polyfills along the way.
In short, what I’m saying is that if the standard bodies put their energy into defining low level APIs, the high level APIs will look after themselves, or rather the community will look after them. After all it seems that the W3C themselves want a more community based approach to standards and besides we all know that bottom-up trumps top-down, right?
Outside my flat is an open space that the local council didn’t quite know what to do with, I’m sure they considered adding basket-ball hoops, concrete tables, a kid’s playground and all kinds of things. As it turned out they created a decent flat surface and pretty much left it as that. The users of this space, mostly children, decided this was a perfect space for playing soccer and improvised the space to include a hand drawn goal and pitch markings. If the council really wanted to make something permanent, they could take inspiration from this and create real goals and solid pitch markings.
It’s probably too late to change the Webkit implementation of the Web Audio API significantly, but I would strongly urge the developers of it to include a more comprehensive low level API in future releases. What’s the worst that could happen?
- The Hyperaudio Pad – Next Steps and Media Literacy
- Breaking Out – The Making Of
- Breaking Out – Web Audio and Perceptive Media
- Altrepreneurial vs Entrepreneurial and Why I am going to Work with Al Jazeera
- HTML5 Audio APIs – How Low can we Go?
- Hyperaudio at the Mozilla Festival
- The Hyperaudio Pad – a Software Product Proposal
- Introducing the Hyperaudio Pad (working title)
- Accessibility, Community and Simplicity
- Build First, Ask Questions Later
- Further Experimentation with Hyper Audio
- Hyper Audio – A New Way to Interact
- P2P Web Apps – Brace yourselves, everything is about to change
- A few HTML5 questions that need answering
- Drumbeat Demo – HTML5 Audio Text Sync
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