In late 2012, Ian Forrester of BBC R&D approached us with an idea he had about taking the Perceptive Media experiment in new editorial formats prototype into a next stage.

Earlier in the year, we”d proposed a “perceptive” experience for the CBBC homepage, taking in data feeds to change how it was presented and incorporating playful elements (eg blowing away clouds if it was a rainy day near you), so Perceptive Media was a natural fit.

Breaking Out, BBC R&D”s original Perceptive Media experiment involved a two-character radioplay – one of whom was acted by a text-to-voice synthesiser – which uses data to adapt the content to the user”s context. eg using location data to fill in dialogue gaps such as weather or place names (“you can do anything, you can go to the Imperial War Museum” – if you”re in Salford/Manchester).

Breaking Out, an experiment in Perceptive Media; BBC R&D

One of the main issues BBC R&D faced when they have tested the Perceptive Media radioplay is that the audiences could not separate the web-based content from the shiny screen – users would be waiting for something to happen on screen, rather than listening to the audio content.

Ian wanted to free the content from the screen, to see how audiences really reacted to Perceptive Media.

The Brief

The possibilities of networked things and Perceptive Media are vast, opening up content to be ‘remixed’ live or contextualised for an audiences’ environment and context.

Ian”s brief to us was to create a domestic radio-style object that would playback the radioplay and pull in data to adapt it to the user”s context. This would enable audiences to act naturally around the radioplay content, and for BBC R&D to understand more about Perceptive Media and audience behaviour.

We decided that the object itself would provide further data feeds – using analogue electronics and sensors – in addition to the web-based data already being collected.

The Domestic Environment

Influenced by networked objects that fit seamlessly into the domestic environment and serve a natural function – such as Voy”s UgleRussell”s Bikemap, the Good Night Lamp and Skrekkøgle”s own radio object, Plugg - we wanted to ensure that the object was a part of the home, not an intervention. The Perceptive Radio is a behaviourally-driven design.

To do this, we spent time role-playing, listening to the radio, and documenting how we behaved around them – as well as what else was going on around the home. There were three key scenarios that most frequently played out:

  • Pottering and moving about in one room
    (eg making a cup of tea, walking to and from cupboards)
  • Pottering and moving in and out of many rooms
    (eg housework, gardening)
  • Settled down to properly listen to the radio
    (eg armchair with a cup of tea and pet)

The first two scenarios point at partial attention – with radio as an accompaniment – whilst the third is a clear, focused attention scenario.

The environmental/behavioural elements that were most frequently documented:

  • Movement
  • Time of day
  • Spikes in ambient noise
    (eg a telephone call, washing machine spin cycle)

Designing The Perceptive Radio

The design challenge was to demonstrate how a networked object could deliver tailored media experiences that are sympathetic to domestic environments, without being disruptive or jarring.

Marrying the contexts with environmental behaviours was the next stage in domestic design:

  • What would a user want a radio to do when they are moving around a room frequently?
  • What would a user want a radio to do when someone calls them up?
  • What would a user want a radio to do when they are settling down to relax?

In order to avoid any unnecessary diversions or wrong routes, we settled on four key design rules:

  1. Behaviour of the audience as control input

The Perceptive Radio is to be designed as an object that is sympathetic to the domestic environment – something that sits comfortably and naturally in a home – and the behaviour of the listener affects the output. Passive, not active, inputs.

  1. No physical interactions

Whilst the box itself has many affordances that could be used as sensor inputs – such as orientation, angle, touch – it was key that the object itself would be secondary. A function, rather than a tool. So, beyond obvious controls (on/off, play, master volume), the user”s behaviour and environment would be the only control inputs.

Some workshop sketches about object affordances
  1. Meaningful inputs

As the user is the control input, the controls have to be meaningful. It is important that those controls are behaviours that already exist, and not attempt to create a new invisible control system. We focused on ambient sound and natural movement rather than forced gestures.

  1. Believable responses/effects

For the Perceptive Radio to fit comfortably into a domestic environment, the output (effects) from the interactions must be believable. There are many variables that could be mapped to interactions – such as pitch or dialogue pace – that would be jarring to the listening experience, rather than being sympathetic to the audience. All effects must be believable and beneficial to the user.

Four Design Scenarios

1. Pottering and moving about in one room: making a cup of tea.

Change in volume.

In this scenario, the user is moving around the kitchen, boiling the kettle, collecting mugs and milk whilst they listen to the radio. As they move away from the radio, the volume changes so that the user can hear a consistent volume level at all times.

2. Pottering and moving about in one room: large spike in ambient noise.

Altering the depth of the audio playback.

In this scenario, the user is moving around the kitchen and filling up the dishwasher whilst they listen to the radio. As the dishwasher kicks in and there is a large spike in ambient noise, the radio alters the depth of the audio playback to foreground the most important element (eg the actors voices).

3. Settled down to properly listen to the radio: lowered light levels.

Adjusting the EQ levels.

In this scenario, the user is settling down to a cosy evening listening to the radio. They stoke their fire and turn off bright lights in the room. The change in light levels in the room causes the radio to adjust the EQ levels, cutting most of the treble, to make a more relaxing listening experience.

4. Settled down to properly listen to the radio: large spike in ambient noise, movement.

Pause the playback.

In this scenario, the user is settled down to a cosy evening listening to the radio before being interrupted by phone call. The large spike in noise coupled with the user”s movement away from the radio, causes the radio to pause playback of the audio.

The Technical Approach

As an object, the Perceptive Radio is a bit of a trick on the user – it looks dumb, but is pretty powerful. The broad remit for the technical and object-design side was that it needed to be “small enough to fit in a box, fast enough to use Web Audio API” whilst processing data feeds from analogue electronics.

Working with Adrian McEwen from MCQN LTD in Liverpool to successfully put the internet into a thing, our first hope for running Breaking Out was a smartphone working with a Raspberry Pi and Arduino. Unfortunately, the Perceptive Media radioplay does quite a lot of heavy lifting – including Web Audio API and performing real-time object-based processing (putting a load of reverb on the text-to-voice synth) – which requires a good quality browser such as Chrome and a decent strength computer.

This kind of processing power is sadly not available in small things and – after testing Breaking Out on Android/iOS mobile devices, Netbooks, Chromebooks and an array of Raspberry Pi – we decided to build a compact Mini-ITX system (a 7″ PC) to power the Perceptive Radio. Using a Beaglebone board for the analogue electronics hub, we had a slightly larger than desired technical solution with enough power to process Breaking Out and analogue inputs comfortably.

The Object

The Radio object itself needed to accommodate a 7″ PC system, sensitive analogue electronics sensors and have capacity to add further sensors/functions later down the line and – crucially –  look natural in a home. Early thoughts around the box design included a classic boombox-style affair, a tall Cathedral design and a box.

Nintendo Gamecube, a design classic.

All had potential, but were never quite right – all either too bulky, odd or anachronistic. We brought Patrick Fenner on board – an “open source engineer” who makes 2D things 3D – to help “make the box”.

Patrick”s experience and speciality in rapid prototyping with lasercut materials took the direction towards a more Digital Radio design, using finger jointed edges, birch plywood and an acrylic fascia:

Patrick”s final design.

The addition of chrome suitcase corners and a carry handle are there for extra structure support and to enable Ian to carry the box comfortably on his travels to demonstrate it.

The Final Prototype


The Perceptive Radio at home
The Perceptive Radio”s innards


UX Design & Production

Greg Povey, Richard Birkin, James Rice, Mudlark

JS, Analogue Electronics & Technical Approach

Adrian McEwen, MCQN

3D Design & Build

Patrick Fenner, Deferred Procrastination


Ian Forrester, BBC R&D

Object-Based Audio

Tony Churnside, BBC R&D

Design & Product Consultant

Jasmine Cox, BBC R&D

Fork the code on Github: the Perceptive Radio / Perceptive Media.


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Comments for this entry


I’d also add listening in a car. How would something like a perceptive radio work in a moving vehicle? I understand that wasn’t part of the original brief, but it could add an extra dimension.

It would be possible to plug it into the car’s own diagnostics, to gain relevant data (speed, temperature, GPS), or pull in data via smartphone coupling.

Anyway, it’s still a lovely idea. I just started thinking about where I listen to the radio more and more these days.

I’ll shut up now :)

Tom E

Fantastic project. A lot of the examples revolve around a one to one relationship with the radio. But radio is a communal experience as well. How would you factor in a one to many relationship with the radio going forward?

Its certainly something we think about a lot. We built the radio so we can prototype scenarios with multiple people.

[...] MCQN Ltd: DoES Liverpool #weeknotes Nice to see our (& Def-Proc‘s) latest work – the @bbcrd #perceptiveradio – out in the wild… [...]

Simon / Tom – definitely. Other use cases/scenarios are very interesting and ripe for investigation.

For this phase, we limited the scope to “one-person/one-radio” scenarios so that we could focus more clearly on those interactions, behaviours and so on. Obviously, there are lots of potential applications of multiple Perceptive Radios in one space, as much as different spaces and different numbers of people.

[...] so you can continue to listen. If the room gets quieter, it also quietens back down (and, says Mudlark's blog post, changes the EQ to make it "a more relaxing listening experience", or, as I would say, makes it [...]

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