Personal Podcasting with AudioBoo, UK’s “Twitter for Voice”

The human voice is making a comeback. For a while, it looked like e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, RSS, and all of the Internet’s other texty goodness might permanently eclipse the old-fashioned phone call and other voice-driven forms of communication. Even the spread of cell phones hasn’t halted the tide of text—more than a third of mobile phone owners use their phones primarily to send SMS text messages rather than making actual calls, according to research from Cambridge, MA-based Vlingo.

But a stream of new mobile-device applications designed for voice input might be restoring the balance. This month I’m excited about two examples in particular: the new Voice Memo app that showed up with Apple’s iPhone 3.0 operating system, and AudioBoo, a nifty audio recording app for the iPhone with a surprising origin: Channel 4, Britain’s publicly funded alternative television network. Along with several other programs, these apps are turning the iPhone into a handy platform for “personal podcasting,” an emerging genre of amateur digital publishing that’s as convenient and spontaneous as Twitter but, because it’s actually a person talking, feels more human.

[You can click here or skip to page 3 to hear an AudioBoo version of this article.]

No apologies, by the way, to non-iPhone owners. With iPhone 3G now priced at $99 and the 3GS starting at $199, there are fewer and fewer excuses for not trying out Apple’s marvelously powerful uber-gadget.

First, a word about Voice Memo on the iPhone. Many mobile phones come with a voice recording function these days, so it wasn’t a surprise to see Apple add one when it updated the iPhone operating system last month. It’s fairly basic: it lets you make new audio notes and review your old notes, all of which get copied to your iTunes library whenever you sync. There’s also a basic editing feature that lets you trim a voice memo by lopping time off the beginning or the end. Best of all, there’s a “share” button that lets you send out copies of voice memos via e-mail.

iPhone Voice MemoI really like the sharing feature, which is great for sending people quick voice messages, and has two advantages over conventional voicemail. First, the sound quality is far superior. Voice memos are monaural, but they don’t get compressed the way your voice does when you’re leaving a message for someone over a cellular voice network (compression that’s redoubled if the recipient is retrieving their voicemail from their own cell phone). Second, e-mailing a voice memo is a non-sneaky substitute for voicemail for those times when you want to leave a voice message but you don’t want to risk actually talking to the person. (Slydial offers a similar capability by connecting you directly to someone’s voicemail—but it’s not foolproof, as it sometimes makes their phone ring anyway.)

In a pinch, you can also use the iPhone Voice Memo app to record audio for publication on the Web. It clearly wasn’t designed for this purpose, as the app records memos using the relatively voluminous .m4a audio format, and doesn’t allow you to transfer memos over a certain size by e-mail. (I’m not sure what the limit is, but I was unable to send a 5-minute, 12-megabyte file.) Also, it buries the synchronized copies of your voice memos deep in the iTunes folder of your computer, where it’s difficult to find them. But as a test, I located one memo—a few thoughts that I recorded on a drizzly afternoon at the Japanese Garden at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—and used iTunes to convert it from .m4a to the more compact .mp3 format, which made it small enough to post on my personal blog at Tumblr.

But if you really want to use your iPhone as a tool for audio publishing, there are much simpler options.

For a long time, my favorite iPhone audio recording app was iTalk, the coolest feature of which is that it lets you transfer big audio files from your phone to your computer very quickly over a Wi-Fi network. But with iTalk or any other iPhone recording app (there are many), you still have to handle all the actual publishing and distribution steps yourself: getting the file online, letting people know about it, and providing a listening interface.

AudioBoo, which came out this spring, takes care of all that, which is why some people are calling it “Twitter with voice.” I guess you could also say that it’s one “k” short of audiobook—which gets at the amateur aspect of the project nicely. It’s the creation of BestBefore Media, a small group of technologists and designers in London, and was built with financial support from 4iP (4 Innovation for the Public), a venture fund created by Britain’s Channel 4 to support digital media innovation.

AudioBoo isn’t a professional audio platform by any means—it doesn’t come with any editing features, even a simple trimming feature like the one in Apple’s Voice Memo. But what it’s really good at is sharing. The app lets you record for up to 5 minutes. When you’re done, you can give your recording a title and, if you want, attach a photograph. (If you give the app permission, it will also geotag the recording with your latitude and longitude.) Then the app automatically uploads your recording and your photo to the AudioBoo website, which functions as a sort of community audio blog.

Each recording, or “boo,” has its own Web page where other people can listen, see the associated photo, and view the location where you recorded the boo on a map. You can grab the HTML code that lets you embed boos in other Web page.

Recent Boos on AudioBoo iPhone appThe iPhone app also lets you browse and hear recent boos. Right now, this list isn’t good for much beyond dipping at random into the vast “boostream”—one thing the app lacks is a way to locate specific users and their boos. But I’m sure the AudioBoo app will be upgraded over time to include features like search, bookmarking, subscriptions, and profile views that we’re used to seeing in other group-publishing apps such as the Tweetdeck app for Twitter, the Mobile Fotos app for Flickr, and Apple’s own YouTube app.

And there are two other big redeeming features to the AudioBoo platform.

1) You can link your AudioBoo account to your Twitter or Facebook account, so that whenever you upload a new boo, AudioBoo will send an automatic notice to your Twitter followers and post a status update on your Facebook profile. Both of these include a link that leads your followers and your friends back to your recording’s AudioBoo web page.

2) You can sign up to follow your favorite AudioBoo users, just the way you would on Twitter, except that “follow” has a slightly different meaning: AudioBoo assembles boos from everyone you’re following into a custom podcast, to which you can subscribe using iTunes. That means every time you sync your iPhone, there will be a new podcast waiting for you with the latest AudioBoo updates from everyone you follow.

These two features—which take care of the distribution problem—are what turn AudioBoo from a mere audio recording tool into a real audio publishing tool. Of course, at the moment, much of the stuff being published on AudioBoo is rubbish. So many people are trying it out for the first time that most boos have titles like “My First Boo.” But that’s to be expected, and in short order there will no doubt be an elite group of AudioBoo artists finding clever, entertaining, and educational uses for the medium. Why wouldn’t there be? We’ve seen exactly the same arc in the past with blogs, podcasts, and Twitter.

There’s one more twist on AudioBoo that’s got me intrigued. Just this week, the company struck a deal with SpinVox, another UK company that specializes in converting voicemails and voice memos into text. According to BestBefore CEO Mark Rock, there’s an “AudioBoo Pro” app in the works that will have Spinvox’s service baked in, meaning AudioBoo users will be able to upload longer recordings and get back text versions, presumably via e-mail.

I absolutely can’t wait for something like this, and I would be willing to pay real money for it. If the transcriptions are any good, such a service would transform the way I do my job, by allowing me to find more productive uses for the untold hours that I currently spend transcribing audio recordings and/or cleaning up typewritten interview notes.

But if all this digital-media acceleration leaves you a bit dizzy at times, I’m with you.Every week seems to bring a new mobile application or Web-based publishing medium that promises to once again upset all of our expectations about communication, journalism included. But I guess that’s why I like my job—I get to ride the tiger by writing about it.

Click on the play button below to hear an abridged AudioBoo version of this column.


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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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