Bringing dead time alive

Updated: Jul 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
Radio equals audio. That more than a century old wisdom is about to be turned on its head with the advent of visual radio, among the new technological changes sweeping out technically transitory age.

Visual radio, launched in India last week, brings the radio via your local analog FM radio to your handset (are you still calling it a phone). And it also allows for interactive content like contests, wallpapers, downloads, graphics, and of course text, all of which are synchronised with the streaming audio contest.

A technology that is still developing rapidly, visual radio is set to change the way people interact with their handsets, especially for music and interactive elements. The third screen is seeing as much a convergence of technology as lifestyle as the need for communication and entertainment becomes more important, says Naveen Chopra, chief marketing officer, Hutch.

So as a song plays on your handset, what you also get simultaneously is information about the song name of film, singer, lyricist, etc. You can also participate in all the contests and adds interactive elements to radio. The content will be provided by Radio Mirchi, who promise an enhanced listening experience. AP Parigi, managing director and chief executive officer, Radio Mirchi, says the content from Radio Mirchis end is constantly researched and updated and visual radio will see the emergence of more and more.

But behind the attempted lifestyle change is a tale of massive technological effort, which brought together Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, Hutch and Radio Mirchi. HP has been able to integrate various back-end operations from date centres in UK to our offices in Bangalore and elsewhere in the country to make this facility possible at an enhanced level, says Kapil Jain, vice-president, HP services. And its not going to cost you much. The cost per hour is going to be in the range of Rs 3 to Rs 4, says Chopra. The download rates are also going to be similar to the general rates, he adds.

An immediate hitch though is that comparatively few phones are visual radio compatible. About 20 of our handsets, including the N series have this facility, says Vineet Taneja, national operator and retail accounts, Nokia. However going ahead, all our high-end handsets are going to be visual radio-enabled, he adds. And no, the activation of 3G is only going to enhance download speeds without any other impact, he says.

For radio stations, visual radio could prove to be a new revenue stream and more importantly, a chance to take on competition from emerging technologies. Specific threats from MP3 devices (about 55 million devices in the market in 2005), and Internet webcasting are eating into the earnings of traditional radio. You could look at visual radio as one element in a series of strategies traditional radio is turning to in hopes of reinveting itself for a digital era.

More and more content will move online and they will start distributing their content in downloadable podcasts, and theyre ultimately moving towards digitising their over-the-air transmissions. Once digitised, the radio stations can even include browsable data more directly alongside songs, instead of resorting to the phone carrier networks to transmit these services.

As to why people will shift to visual radio, Taneja says that 54% of our population is aged 26 or less. And this burgeoning population has its own aspirations and needs, and this is an idea whose time has come. While only about 10% of phones have FM radio at present, it is is bound to grow with greater GPRS penetrations.

Stakeholders also sound confident that visual radio is in fact going to push GPRS subscriptions as more people are attracted to the service, especially in B towns, where the dead time is much more. And those not on Nokia or Hutch need not despair, the service is going to be available with other service providers as well. Airtel has already announced its plans for visual radio and Idea is gearing up too.

Visual radio was launched in Singapore about two and a half months ago, and since been launched in UK, Finland, Turkey, Spain and a few others, says Dilip Phadke, director of business development strategic initiatives, Hewlett-Packard India.

So the lead time between the global launch and its arrival in India has been minimal. Perhaps, this indicates the growing importance of India in the visual radio field, he highlights. None of the business partners are willing to discuss the revenue sharing model. All they reveal is that it shall followinternational patterns.

But irrespective of the technological and business models, the handset is going to an even more indispensable companion in the near future.