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Roadcasting: A Potential Mesh Network Killer App

Terrestrial radio may soon face yet another challenge with user-created radio broadcasting from any car on the road.

The Quicktime-formatted promotional video for the roadcasting project begins with a black screen that quickly dissolves into a still black-and-white image of a driver sitting behind the steering wheel, wearing a look of frustration and boredom. The narration begins: “Everyone has experienced the headaches of FM radio. There’s the endless commercials, the same old songs over and over again, and the difficulty of finding something that you want to hear. Welcome to the next generation of radio: roadcasting.”

The terrestrial radio industry is already fighting a multi-front battle with the ascendant satellite radio business and nascent podcasting community. Now it has another technological innovation to worry about: roadcasting.

The concept was created by a team of five students at Carnegie Mellon University. Their Human-Computer Interaction Institute Masters Program project, which was sponsored by General Motors, according to a company spokeswoman, combines three hot areas: ad hoc (mesh) computer networks, personalized digital music, and open-source software development. While the hardware elements – the network devices, the touch-screen interface, and the stereo component – have yet to be created, the working software application is currently being picked over by open-source enthusiasts around the world.

The most straightforward use for the software enables people to create their own personal radio stations – playlists – and store them on an in-car stereo hard drive. The real innovation, though, comes from what happens once a playlist is created. While a driver is listening to music from his or her choices, the songs will be broadcast and available for reception by any other car with a roadcast-equipped car stereo. So, if a driver gets bored with a personal playlist, the software’s collaborative filtering capabilities will automatically scan the airwaves looking for other roadcast stations that match the driver’s stated preferences, and return any matching available stations. Listeners can search by bands, genres, and song titles, and skip through other users’ radio stations to find music they want to hear.

Say, for instance, Heather gets into her car in the morning and decides she wants to hear some death metal on a traffic-congested commute. Using a touch screen (the method roadcasting’s designers believe will work best for both convenience and safety), Heather can select her favorite songs and bands from her existing song library (stored on a car’s hard drive or a digital music player docked into a stereo). Heather then selects an icon for her radio station, names it, and heads off to work. Meanwhile, John, a fellow frazzled commuter and death-rock aficionado, is on the road, and his roadcasting system alerts him that a new station with similar music is in range. John can then select to listen to the station, viewing the name, icon, and songs available. If he would rather hear a song on Heather’s list that isn’t currently playing, John can fast-forward to that song and play it.

The arrival and success of roadcasting, though, won’t happen until further development of mesh networks, which are created through small, inexpensive sensors, typically attached to other devices, with little intelligence other than the ability to connect, reconnect, and conduct an application.

Mesh networks have a wide variety of uses, although so far they have been limited mainly to niche sectors. They are used in home security, where they detect movement and relay information back to a central computer, and in supermarkets, where some companies use them to monitor refrigerator energy usage and temperature. They’ve also been deployed in hospitals to network medical equipment and information systems, and they’re used to keep the portable computers in police cruisers hooked into departmental networks. 

The roadcasting software has been released into the open source community, which means anyone – even GM’s competitors – can try to find commercial uses for roadcasting. And the project members – all of whom graduated and have jobs – are enthusiastic about the response the project has received so far.

“It’s been great,” says Whitney Hess, one of the project’s leaders. “We’re all looking at ways to improve the [software], but we’re most excited to see what the open-source community does with our ideas.”

And, as with any digital music-sharing technology, licensing rights are also an issue. The project developers are fairly confident that they’re operating within the current law.

“As far as licensing, we called BMI several times,” says Hess. “I’m under the impression that if our sponsor were to employ this for commercial use, there’d be a BMI fee.”

BMI is one of two licensing organizations which, in part, collects and pays out royalty fees to songwriters, composers, and music publishers.

A spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade organization for the major record labels, declined to comment on copyright issues raised by roadcasting.

To be sure, amateur radio enthusiasts shouldn’t look for roadcasting plug-ins as an option on 2006 models; however, developers are already getting excited about potential uses.

“We based our project on the assumption that the mesh networking protocols would be no later than 2010,” says Megan Shia, another project manager.

As mesh networks continue to develop, more applications like roadcasting should become a reality. Jason Hill, CEO of JLH Labs, a mesh-networking company based in Capistrano, CA (and a 2003 Technology Review 100 Bold Young Innovator for his efforts in this field), says roadcasting exploits the potential of these networks.

“The mesh network sector is on the brink,” Hill says. “Two years ago, it was more in the experimental [stage]. But thanks to the rigorous engineering work, the networks are about ready to be deployed. And automobiles absolutely lend themselves to mesh networks.”

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