October 17, 2012 at 10:08 am

Why The Roundware Open-Source Audio Location Platform Rules

roundware open source audio location halsey burgund

Most people who make apps are entrepreneurs, which is as it should be. According to Steve Jobs, they’ve made over $1 billion on iOS alone.

Perhaps it takes someone of a more artistic bent to build a platform for pinning songs and live-recorded audio to specific locations on a map — and then open-source it, so that any other individual or company can use it to build whatever they want using the same basic framework. A more entrepreneurial spirit might (understandably) attempt to turn such a thing into a business.

The artist in question here is Halsey Burgund, who built the open-source Roundware platform (with help) to run his location-based art pieces, the latest of which is Round:Cambridge, available for Android and iOS (free). While running the app, sponsored by the Cambridge Arts Council, curious humans can walk around Cambridge, Massachusetts as musical themes come in to or fade out of the mix based on how close they walk to where the sounds are pinned on the map.

They can also use the mic on their smartphone or headphone cord to add their own audio snippets or spoken observations and listen to the sounds left there by others, sharing their sounds through Twitter and Facebook while they’re at it. Other examples of Roundware apps include Hotel Dreamy, Mountain Ghosts, Music for Journaling, and Ocean Voices.

Burgund’s apps are alluring, combining augmented reality, location, art, and crowdsourcing in a way that hasn’t quite been done before, though it builds on Burgund’s own Scapes project (video), and has other relatives in Bluebrain’s experiments with Central Park and the National Mall, and Bob Dylan’s geo-cached album preview.

The open-source Roundware platform has deeper implications, because it means other developers can build stuff that puts music and other audio on a map without reinventing the wheel. We had to know more (email interview edited for length and clarity).

Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: How did the idea first occur to you to pin sounds and music to places? I think you were doing this before Bluebrain, but I’m not sure.

Halsey Burgund, Roundware: The idea originated with the desire to augment a physical space with commentary such that an individual could leave his or her mark, invisibly, on a physical location. And then people visiting that spot later in time could hear an evolving mixture of all the previous experiences that were had and left by people standing in a single location. I love the idea of stacking up slices of experience from different times in a single place and compressing them into the present.

So I wanted to leave voices in particular locations. My work has always used voices in a musical setting, so the notion of composing music that shifted over space in addition to time seemed very natural. I didn’t want the voices to be “naked,” but rather mixed into an audio ecosystem laid on top of the real world. Geo-aware music was a great solution to this. I’ve also always been very attuned to the way places sound, and the idea of being able to augment that natural aural experience with my own music in a shifting and flexible way was really exciting. Audio is a much better form of augmented reality than visuals, in my mind.

Though I believe I was doing location-based music with apps well before Bluebrain (Scapes at deCordova was exhibited in 2010, and I began work on it in 2009), I don’t think I can claim to be the first. I’ve heard anecdotes of composers sending parts of the orchestra to different parts of outdoor fields to create similar effects way back in the 1700s, and there’s been a lot of experimentation since then. It’s just that mobile technology makes it a lot easier and cheaper to do nowadays.

Evolver.fm: How did you decide to make the system recordable too (i.e. accepting user sounds), and why did you open-source the underlying platform as Roundware?

Burgund: For the past decade or so, my work has all been about the spoken human voice; collecting different people speaking about different topics and bringing them all together into something that collectively represents my own voice. I have a fascination with voices — not only what people say, but how they say it. Speech is very musical, but only when you let yourself listen in that way, and I like to take the seemingly mundane chatter of human existence and make something musical and beautiful (hopefully!) out of it.

So the first exhibit I created using Roundware (called Round, shockingly) was primarily about collecting voices of museum visitors expressing themselves about artworks, and secondarily about ‘locating’ those voices collectively near the artworks being discussed. It was the next exhibit that I added the true geo-location to Roundware, and that has henceforth become a huge part of my work.

I could go on for ages about why I chose to open-source Roundware, but the two primary reasons are that Roundware depends on a ton of open-source software to exist (Linux, Apache, mysql, etc.) and I like the idea of giving something back to the community that facilitated so much of Roundware. But more importantly, the whole philosophy of Roundware is to enable audio experiences to be created connectively with many individuals making their own small contributions; this is essentially what open-source development is all about, so it didn’t make any sense to me to lock it down and keep it only for myself.

Evolver.fm: What are the possibilities for sharing not only live-recorded audio but songs, motifs, etc.? Could an individual or company use Roundware in conjunction with a licensed music catalog to create an app for pinning songs to places?

Burgund: This is totally possible… and an interesting idea! Essentially Roundware handles two types of audio: ‘continuous’ audio placed in (typically larger) geographic areas, which is mixed based on the physical position of the listener; and ‘intermittent’ audio clips (in my work mainly voices, but it can be any audio) which are activated and mixed in with the continuous audio by physical position as well as various user-selectable filtering parameters.

I think of it as an ocean of continuous audio within which various creatures — the intermittent audio — live. You can swim around, always hearing a mix of the continuous music while randomly running into these other bits.

Generally, I use Roundware to collect voice commentary from participants, but I can alternatively (or hybrid-ly) upload audio clips via my admin interface, and place any audio in any location to be experienced by participants. So one could easily grab songs/clips etc from a licensed music catalog and place them anywhere in the world for people in those spots to hear. There are lots of parameters to tweak the aesthetics of the playback mechanism within Roundware, so you could probably create some interesting experiences of, say, walking down a street hearing more and more verses of a particular song or something like that.

Evolver.fm: Is integration with social or existing location networks like Foursquare relatively easy?

Burgund: I’ve integrated Roundware into Facebook and Twitter by allowing participants to automatically tweet or post a link to a webpage that has their recording on it along with a map of where it was made and some other recording information (such as the MP3), but I have not integrated place-based location networks. I imagine it would be fairly easy to do assuming there is a nice API available.

Evolver.fm: Round:Cambridge sounds really fun and interesting. I think I noticed a reference to this being like non-destructive graffitti… Were the kids who populated some of the voices actually graffiti artists by any chance? And did those kids in general “get” this concept, or how did they respond?

Burgund: Thanks! And that’s a good question. I don’t actually know if any of the kids who have participated were graffiti artists, but it would be really cool if they made that translation. I’m not sure if kids get the concept so much as they have fun with it and enjoy adding a piece of themselves to this larger collective creation. There is in many ways an expectation that kids have that they can participate in virtually anything; that nothing is simply a one-way street anymore and therefore I think my pieces feel natural in that sense to the younger crowd.

One of the really important aspects about Roundware that was vital from the start is that when someone makes a contribution, it is immediately uploaded to the central server and inserted into the piece.  The only latency is from the upload time. Kids have really loved the ability to make recordings and then hear them immediately played back in the context of the music and the other voices. They have devised treasure hunt sorts of games where they leave voices in certain spots and try to find those of their friends. And stories have unfolded over time; at my Scapes exhibit, one kid started a story about being attacked by zombies and over the following four months, more and more kids added layers to that story even though they were all there on-site at different times… pretty cool, and it’s not typical that kids get that excited about contemporary art.

Evolver.fm: What are your hopes for the Roundware platform, if everything goes perfectly? And how can developers get access to it?

Burgund: My hope is that more and more people begin to use Roundware in ways that I have not thought of and begin to add to the codebase in new ways as well. I built Roundware to satisfy the admittedly narrow needs and goals of my sound art installations, but it is now being used by the Smithsonian, UNESCO and a few other museums for their own educational purposes. I’ve been in early exploratory talks with various educators and have lots of ideas of how Roundware could be used in school contexts as a different sort of non-linear learning approach/tool. Teachers could create lesson plans for museum field trips, for example, and have the kids discover things and leave messages for each other.

I’ve been a bit shocked that Roundware has proven useful past my own work, to be honest, but it’s been really exciting to hear other people’s ideas of how to use it and take advantage of the capabilities in totally different ways. It turns out art can be useful!

Roundware V1 is available on Sourceforge, but I hope to release a significantly upgrade V2 fairly soon on GitHub. It’s been a big challenge to get it developed on skimpy art-project budgets (BIG thanks to my awesome developer friends) and there are a few core bits of usability and convenience that I need to wrap up before releasing V2 publicly. That said, I am happy to freely share the new code with anyone who gets in touch directly, so that I can help them through some of the (currently) less developer-friendly bits and pieces.

(Diagram of Scapes courtesy of Roundware.org)