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BBC boffins ponder abstruse Ikea-style way of transmitting telly

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Future broadcasting could resemble IKEA flat pack furniture - with the bits and pieces of each transmission assembled at home, perhaps in ways not intended by the designer - if boffins at the BBC get their way.

The traditional approach is to mix the media before it's transmitted in a linear stream. But brainboxes at BBC R&D are looking at an "object oriented" transmission approach, which envisages the "receiver" - a TV, radio or fondleslab for example - reassembling a bundle of media objects after it gets them.

The ever-increasing computational power of media receivers makes such research plausible. There's an analogy with spread spectrum radio, which became commercially viable decades after it was conceived and first demonstrated, because of the lowering cost of computation. Today's 3G transmissions increase spectrum efficiency for a network because the "terminal" is doing much more graft.

The O-O transmission idea isn't new - here's a paper [PostScript format] from 1997 on the subject, and another from 2004, for example - but it is more viable every day.

There are some advantages of putting together the bits and pieces at the receiver, as the BBC's Tony Churnside explains in this recent blog post.

One is that the method makes it easy to serve content set up for lots of different kinds of platform, so the stream can include elements for all devices and the client chooses the most appropriate one. Another is that it offers the listener more choice: you could choose where to "sit" during a transmission of a live performance, or adjust presets as on an equaliser.

The technology might even, as the BBC's Churnside puts it, allow "a viewer to have the programme content tailored to their taste or mood".  No doubt some would wish to replace an objectionable interviewee - Ed Balls or Nigel Farage perhaps - with something more soothing, producing customised news automatically.

Indeed the blog post does acknowledge such a concern:

"How do we deal with phenomena like media bubbles and conformation bias? What are the implications of this for the writing and production process?"

It's likely to undermine creative confidence even further if viewers insist on always "voting" for a happy ending.

It's hard to see just why any of this requires complex additional processing at the receiver end, and we can usefully recall what sank the object-oriented software hype of twenty years ago. In the early 1990s, every software powerhouse in the industry was touting O-O as the future of software. Many predicted that users would pick and mix components, rather than use monolithic software packages. It was the Cloud Computing or Big Data of its era.

What happened was that the components added complexity and often sapped resources - but weren't perceived to offer much more value over a monolithic bundle. Features were valued over choice. So for retail software, monolithic won the day.

But don't underestimate the appeal of O-O transmission to two groups of people. One is BBC middle management, who will form "a metadata working group" at the drop of hat, and spend years having meetings which typically achieve nothing - but consume a lot of license fee money.

The other group is TV manufacturers, who are facing a grim future as undifferentiated, commoditised floggers of flat panels. O-O might allow them to sell more expensive sets.

And with 3D flopping, they need some magic marketing woo from somewhere. ®

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