(Wired) Forget the fad of accosting random strangers to jack your headphones into their iPods. That’s so two weeks ago. The future of on-the-go peer-to-peer music sharing is already starting to groove in Ireland. Media Lab Europe, research partner to MIT Media Lab, is testing tunA, a software application that employs Wi-Fi to locate nearby users, peek at their music playlist and wirelessly jack into their audio stream.
Pronounced like the fish and signifying music “tunes” and “ad hoc” file sharing, tunA is being designed for wireless PDAs, cell phones and even its own hardware device.
“TunA alleviates the alienation of using a Walkman, and it makes it more of a social experience. You can listen to your music and still open yourself up to people around you,” said research fellow Arianna Bassoli, who masterminded the project late last year after researching the way young people in Dublin interact — or don’t — in public spaces.
Since February, Bassoli has dedicated herself to answering the question: Can anyone become a mobile radio station? Joined in July by computer engineer Julian Moore, another member of Media Lab Europe’s Human Connectedness group, a working prototype implies the answer is yes. Their next step is to determine whether tunA can become a social experience.
“The main issue behind it was a way to connect people subtly, without being intrusive,” said Bassoli. “And music is the way teenagers want to open themselves to people around them.”
When alone, a tunA-enabled device functions like a regular MP3 player. But around others like it, the interface displays other in-range users, identified by the avatar of their choice. Avatars appear or disappear automatically as users go in and out of range.
Clicking on others’ avatars lets you see whatever personal information or messages they want to share with the world. It also displays their playlist and the song they are listening to at that moment so you can decide if you want to tune in.
There’s also instant-message capability, the possibility to change skins and a virtual stalking feature: You can bookmark not only songs, but also people.
“So even though the people around you might change, you can bookmark those you like, so next time you see them, (tunA) would notify you they’re around,” explained Bassoli. “Also, if there’s a song that you don’t you know, you can bookmark it so the next time someone nearby has it, you can ask them about it.”
Bassoli’s next step is observing tunA users’ interactions at a small art college in Dublin.
“I am interested in the overlap between the virtual and real world,” she said. “I think that since you know the people you are connecting with are nearby, it would get you curious about who they are (based on their music tastes).
“It’s not like sharing music with someone far away on the Internet; you might actually want to meet these people.”
Despite research sponsorship by Ericsson, however, Bassoli said tunA’s path to commercialization is not necessarily immediate. Media Lab’s contact at Ericsson was not available by press time to comment on the probability or timing of tunA appearing in one of its mobile phones. More importantly, however, Bassoli isn’t sure how tunA would best work with mobile phones.
“What’s nice about Wi-Fi is the peer-to-peer connection; it’s completely decentralized,” she said. “With wireless technology used now for mobile phones, it is more difficult because it is more centralized.”
As for potential DMCA-violation concerns, Bassoli isn’t worried at the moment. TunA isn’t designed to provide downloading capability, and rogue software available to hijack music streams isn’t much more sophisticated than a camcorder in a movie theater.
Technology pundit Andrew Orlowski, on the other hand, is more concerned that tunA does not have downloading capabilities.
“I’m not sure that a device that would allow streaming but wouldn’t allow you to copy would be very popular,” he said.
“I agree with the Cupertino strangler, I mean Steve Jobs. (He) said that there is a certain satisfaction that comes with completing the transaction.”