No postings for a while — I’ve been very busy, and also been in Rome the last few days, which was lovely. Lunch at the Hotel de Russie on the sunniest day of the year…

I’ve been thinking more about the pleasures of lean-back media. While there have been many interesting and highly-effective peer-based systems for content sharing and discovery, they are for the most part highly effortful, with a strong disconnect between the experience of finding media and the eventual joy of experiencing it. I’ve also been researching collaborative filtering (“recommender”) systems, which suggest media based on correlations between distributed users’ preferences. So far, most collaborative filtering systems require fairly engaged participation on the part of the user to obtain the media they recommend. Even Audioscrobbler (which actively maintains its user profile based on the tracks that its users actually listen to, via media player plugins), simply informs you of other things you might like, rather than making that content easily available. Of course, this is mostly due to copyright restrictions — a hybrid Audioscrobbler/Napster would break the same laws as Napster, and probably suffer the same fate at the hands of the music industry.

Which is where I think the opportunity lies. Put collaborative filtering into a system which delivers a lean-back, radio-esque end-user experience, and I think we have something which would both have a mass market, and be the first user-friendly application of Digital Rights Management.

Think about the experience of radio. Most stations have a high-rotation playlist, as well as a general music policy. Now imagine ‘radio of me’, which plays music that I’m generally going to like. Radio is lean-back, relaxed. The interface is simple — you turn it on, choose a station/channel, and rest of the experience is immersive — you don’t have to choose tracks, download anything, or configure complicated preferences. ‘Radio of me’ could provide the same experience, but incorporate both collaborative filtering and DRM to provide a much more customised listening experience.

Maybe it could work like this:

  • You start with your own library of music CDs, which are ripped into a DRM-protected format and served off what is effectively a personal music jukebox (much like Otto). If you want to, you can specify playlists, or queue up particular tracks to play. If not, songs are played randomly from your own archive.
  • You have a simple remote control (either hardware, or on-screen, although I’m imagining the radio-of-me to be more likely a box than a piece of software). You can adjust the volume, and there are two Tivo-esque ‘ratings’ buttons. Press the Green button to say ‘the currently playing track is one I like’, the red button to say ‘I don’t like this’. This simple interface is enough for the system to rapidly build up a unique profile of your preferences.
  • In the background, the system connects back to a central server running a system like DBLens, which calculates a Pearson r coefficient or similar to correlate your preferences against those of the entire user community, which gives the system sufficient knowledge to recommend specific tracks that you don’t own personally, but which you will probably like.
  • Now, the clever part. All the media files are DRM protected, so that they can be made to ‘expire’ after a certain period of time or number of plays if they are played on a box other than the one on which they were created (i.e. if they are played by someone who doesn’t own the original media containing those tracks). The system will feed a predetermined number of such files, which it thinks you will like, from other network peers to your box, in the background. They are streamed randomly in amongst the tracks you yourself have ripped, but they expire after say a week, or after a certain number of plays. This allows users to experience new music without paying for it, and without the effort of downloading it manually. Equally importantly, it delivers a radio-like experience — for a couple of weeks, you will repeatedly hear ‘that great new song’, but after a while you will hear it less often, or not at all. Imagine your remote has a third button, which will actually purchase music for you that you indicate you like, and turn off the DRM expiry function, so that if you hear something you like and purchase it, it becomes to all intents and purposes ‘yours’ in the same way that tracks do which you have ripped yourself.

The experience is simple, the interface is very minimal, and experientially, the system works like radio, rather than a complex mix of software applications. And unlike other attempts at integrating DRM into people’s media-consumptive lives, ‘radio of me’ does so in such a way that the DRM restrictions are never experienced directly — the experience is rather than of hearing new things, which fade and disappear over time if you don’t buy them outright.

Experientially, this works for me, and I want one. I’m working on a prototype, and have just received the good news from the creator of DBLens that he is working on a new collaborative filtering engine based on Java and MySQL rather than Oracle, which will substantially reduce the cost and effort of setting up a test system. More on this soon…