January 9, 2008

New Radios Would Provide Text Scrolling

A new technology revealed Tuesday would show what is being said on the radio using a receiver with a screen that would show text much like closed captioning on TV. It is currently backed by National Public Radio and Harris Corp., and also a new research center at Towson University, however, no manufacturer has committed to bring the new technology to the market as of yet. NPR and its affiliates showed a prototype text radio at ICES on Tuesday.

Mike Starling, NPR's chief technology officer, said by phone that the group hoped to bring in commercial broadcasters, radio manufacturers and other industry players. Starling said he hoped text-based broadcasts would become a new standard in radio, just as digital broadcasting - known as HD Radio - did several years ago.

The text service will rely on HD Radio technology, which allows broadcasters to split their signal into multiple transmissions. Some stations use the extra capacity to broadcast additional music or talk radio channels, which can be heard on HD Radio receivers. The new scrolling-text service would also use the extra capacity made available through HD Radio, but instead of broadcasting music it would send out streams of data that would be converted to scrolling text by the receivers and then displayed on the screen.

HD Radio itself is still in its early stages, but stations are embracing it. About 1,500 stations now broadcast in HD Radio in the United States, the consortium said. The technology has lowered in price, something that had been holding up a much broader span, and some units now sell for under $100.

Initially, the radio text service would operate like closed captioning, where someone types what's being said on the radio into a computer system in real time. The consortium eventually hopes to find speech translating software that turns the signal into written text and automate the service and reduce the cost to provide it so a wider variety of radio stations can offer it.

The technology is only one of several that NPR, Harris and Towson University's new research center are developing to make programming more readily accessible for deaf and blind persons.

The group also is working on making radios able to provide audio cues for the blind and visually impaired that would indicate what frequency the radio is tuned to, among other functions, and giving greater access to services such as InTouch Networks, which provides broadcasts and online audio feeds of volunteers reading from newspapers and magazines.