From Dusk till Dawn - an ambient “art radio” for insomniacs / Feb 13th 2011

As I said at the start of my lightning talk at the Guardian SxSW hackday today “hello, I’m Chris and I’m an insomniac”. Often when I travel, I suffer really badly from insomnia. The best things I’ve found to switch my brain off so I can sleep are either old episodes of the IT Crowd, Father Ted or Black Books, or even better where I can find it, the Discovery Channel’s HD screensaver, the BBC World Service or NPR.

I love the NPR iPad app, but I have some issues with the voices I hear on it. They all have the NPR voice, similar, but not so bad with the World Service. After a while it all feels slightly surreal, different stories by different presenters with different bylines, but always the same tone, register and cadence. You can even hire voice talent who can produce the NPR sound.

The Guardian SxSW hackday was all about thinking about new ways of presenting news/event/music/film/cultural information. I thought it might be fun, since I’m working at an art startup, to do something which looks at the rather good art scene in Austin. However I think it’s pretty clear that you could do something just like this for almost any form of user generated audio content around an event, either recent or distantly historical. You could also use the AudioBoo API to power it if you wanted to, it’s a situational version of what they do.

Dan Catt and I have been talking of late about ambient audio news content, he’s been doing some really interesting thinking around this and a lovely fun experiment with text-to-speech and autotune. I was talking about some of my early thinking on what we could do with ambient “art radio” with John Willshire and he and I hatched a plan for what to do for the #gSxSW hackday. We’d get real people to tell us how different bits of art made them feel, get their impressions and the put them together in a sort of image and audio slideshow and then see what came out.  

And here it is. From Dusk till Dawn - the insomniac’s ambient audio guide to art in Austin. 

What comes out of this is some interesting things. Firstly, it sort of works in my opinion, people’s opinions of the works are interesting, they make you look again and introspect your feelings. Secondly, audio guides in galleries: you definitely want the authoritative voice, but maybe you want to hear what your friends say, what the artist says, what other people with similar art tastes say. Thirdly, we need a slightly quicker way of getting the audio in, but a Twilio API hack (which I nearly attempted, so you could phone a number and leave a voicemail about a painting) could be fun, but we have something coming with Artfinder which might be more the thing. 

Now to test it on a tired (overnight hacking so I could be with family on the weekend) insomniac. I’ll tell you how I get on.

Thanks to Paul Pod, Erin Maguire, Joanna Geary, Becky Fishman, Jemima Kiss, Chris Unitt and Jason Grant some of which you hear in the video. 

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