We’re experimenting with content for Voice
Every so often a technology comes along that could change how we consume information, ideas and entertainment. Each time the BBC has been at the cutting edge, in big and small ways. We may be experiencing something similar again.
Over the past few years, companies such as Amazon, Apple and Google have launched ‘smart speaker’ systems — with over 10 million sold so far worldwide. These devices operate in an area we at the BBC know well: audio. You control them with your voice, and the device doesn’t just play back radio or podcasts — it also speaks back to you itself, interactively, allowing all sorts of things from internet search to using specially designed apps. As well as this, many smartphones now have a voice-assistant function. The catch-all term for these changes is ‘Voice’.
Speaking at the BBC recently, a leading digital thinker said to us that he thought Voice would transform broadcasting. He pointed out that a fifth of searches on mobile are already being spoken. But he said that what was missing now was great content from people like the BBC.
We’re on the case.
Well, it’s not just that our public purposes require us to make “innovative content”.
It’s also why we were created. The BBC was set up by wireless manufacturers to make programmes for the sets they were trying to sell. The catch-all term for these devices was ‘radio’ and the BBC was set up to provide a service for this disruptive new technology.
The BBC’s first engineer, Peter Eckersley, was also its first creative force — from a hut near Chelmsford, he used to put on evenings of entertainment. When it was opera, he used to perform the songs himself.
Some 90 years later, the CTO of the BBC isn’t an opera singer. So this time it’s a partnership between Matthew Postgate’s division, BBC Design and Engineering, and the content divisions of the BBC.
We’ve appointed a product lead, Andy Webb; whilst no opera singer, he does provide great strategic thinking for positioning the BBC in an AI-first economy and an Editor for what we are calling Experimental Voice Audio, Mukul Devichand, who previously created and ran some of BBC News’ noted digital units, BBC Trending and World Hacks. BBC News Labs have been running hacks for a while now to work out the potential of voice for news and current affairs and we aim to build on that.
What are we going to do?
In digital, we often talk about ‘crawl, walk, run’, and that’s what we’ll do here.
By Christmas, we’ll have started moving.
They’ll be more on that soon — but if you get a voice device from Santa, see what the BBC can help you do.
We’re going to find out what content works particularly well on voice devices. In the same way that streaming has made binge watching a thing, conversational devices could change both what and how we consume. At the moment, people are using the devices for basic tasks like weather, music, news — so we’ll look at those areas. It’s also potentially the first internet device that many children will be allowed to use. The BBC already does CBeebies Radio — we’ll think about how that could evolve on this new medium.
We’d expect to start testing this content next year.
Finally, we’re thinking about how Voice could transform how we inform, educate and entertain. We’re running some innovation groups and would love to work with partners who have good ideas, in both content and tech.
We’re starting with small experiments, like the one from our R&D team — Inspection Chamber — which we’ll be launching shortly — but think the potential here could be significant. We’ll keep you updated with how we get on.
Meanwhile, if you want to work with us, get in touch with me.