Three computer scientists are hoping to turn the London Underground into a thriving network for sharing music unencumbered by copyright.
The project, London Undersound, would let commuters download and upload tracks to each other via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, said Johanna Brewer, a doctoral student in informatics at the University of California at Irvine, who is currently doing research in London.
The Tube is a dead zone for mobile phones. No signals penetrate its tunnels and there are no transponders within to allow calls or text messages. Nonetheless, people still tap away on their mobiles offline, composing text messages and playing games, Brewer said.
And despite the sometimes gruff demeanour of commuters, there is a social network, with people sharing items such as the newspaper and interacting with each other, Brewer said.
"There's a lot of very implicit and unspoken sharing practices that go on," said Brewer, who conducted studies on social interaction on the Underground. "There was this sort of special feeling people had about the Tube in that they felt a concentrated mix of humanity."
The mass of people combined with ubiquitous mobile devices make the Tube a perfect place for sharing media. Brewer and two colleagues, Arianna Bassoli and Karen Martin, also doctoral students, envisage London Undersound as a system where people will be able to upload and download tracks at Underground stations.
Each station would have a unique set of tracks specific to that area of the city, making the act of travelling and then the sharing of music part of a social experience, Brewer said. Using their mobiles, people would be able to share tracks via Bluetooth while they are on the Tube, as well as upload music at Underground stations.
Technically and legally the project is complex. The three researchers are designing a handset application written in Java for Symbian or Linux OSes that would enable the sharing of tracks between users. Brewer said they originally thought it would be possible to install servers at Underground stations, but that idea posed too many difficulties.
Now they are looking into equipping people with Nokia N800 tablet PCs within the stations. Those tablets could distribute tracks over Wi-Fi or another wireless protocol. The handset application would let users scan the song libraries of other people within Bluetooth range and download a track, albeit with the permission of the person.
"Each station acts as a localised repository," Brewer said. "As people begin sharing tracks with one another in a peer-to-peer fashion, you can download them from anyone you happen to see on the platform."
There are many networking and routing issues that come with lots of people using wireless devices in a small area, Brewer said. As an increased number of devices interact with one another, it quickly becomes a dense, saturated network, she said.
On the legal side, "obviously, there are a host of copyright issues," Brewer said.
The researchers are not pushing for Undersound to be for mainstream, established acts but rather emerging artists interested in establishing a link between where they live, their music and their identity. Filters could be used to keep out copyright material, she said.
Undersound is also in discussions with Creative Commons, the organisation that studies ways to protect the creator's rights but also balance use of the work, for licensing models.
"We're hoping to give more meaning to the music and allow artists to express themselves in a more realistic way rather than [putting fliers] all over London," Brewer said.