Be's Aura: The MP3 Home Stereo

Scot Hacker

When people think "Internet Appliance," they usually think of a small, easy-to-use web/email station, a hand-held wireless web tablet, or a wired refrigerator. This is, in my opinion, a rather myopic view of the entire appliance realm. It's understandable, given that that description encompasses most of what we've seen from the appliance market thus far, but the web terminal segment represents only the first step in the coming appliance revolution.

Much more interesting, in my opinion, are the more complex devices devoted to specific tasks. Things like portable DJ consoles, TV storage devices like the TiVo, the Edirol DV-7 digital video editing unit, or Be's soon-to-appear MP3 home stereo convergence platform, code-named "Aura."

No, Be isn't getting back into the hardware business. Rather, Aura is a "reference platform" -- a sample implementation of a networked, home-stereo MP3 recording and playback unit, meant to be adopted by OEMs and vendors who will customize, manufacture, and distribute devices to the consumer audio market. The time has come for file-based digital music to be taken out of the computer room and placed in the living space, where it belongs. Be's aim here is to provide a platform that can be moderately or heavily tweaked by partners, and that can then be plugged into a home stereo system coupled to a home network. While the device will look and act much like a standard home stereo component, Be is making it easy for partners to provide a specialized computer that doesn't look or act like a computer.

Hobbiests have been creating similar devices for more than a year out of home-brew hardware components and hacked versions of Windows and Linux, and I've had a similar pet project slowly cooking for quite a while myself. But after studying the Aura prototype Be had on display at this year's Comdex, I realized there's no point in creating a BeOS-based home stereo component on my own; Be is creating a unit far more flexible, elegant, and powerful than anything I could have built.

While Be won't tell me who the first round of Aura partners are, it's likely that we'll see a commercially available Aura implementation as soon as Q2 2000.

It's Got Everyting...

At first blush, it might seem like a simple matter to pack some computer components into a home stereo component case and decode MP3s in sequence. And it would be. But to be really compelling to consumers, Aura needs to do much more than that.

Part of the magic of Aura is that it's networked, both to the world at large and to the rest of the home. As a result, it could be capable of retrieving MP3s from sources like, or from record labels. It also could be capable of looking up inserted CDs in online music databases like the cddb, and of sending separate audio streams to various rooms in the house simultaneously. Audio could originate from standard CDs, from data CDs containing MP3 tracks, from MP3 "radio" sources like icecast or live365, or MP3s stored in the unit's own storage system.

The collection of MP3s on disk is, of course, where all the flexibility lies. Because the Be File System functions like a database, all music could be ID3 tagged and attributed, then queried on arbitrary criteria. That means you could do things like create query-based playlists: "Show me all the MP3s on my system in the genres country or punk, written between 1976 and 1982, excluding all those Garth Brooks snoozers." Because BFS queries don't have to iterate over every file like Mac, Windows, or Linux queries do, search results would be instantaneous. And you wouldn't need a 3rd party database or complex interactions between the filesystem and a database to do it. This playlist could then be served to the kitchen, while Syd Barrett gets pumped into junior's room and surf tunes and oldies find their way to the garage. All at once.

There are five ways of controlling the Aura prototype, and individual vendors are free to choose which control methods they ship devices with. 1) On-unit controls. These are similar to the buttons found on standard home stereo components, but are augmented by a four-line VFD (vacuum flourescent display), which lets status info glow from across the room. 2) Aura can be controlled from a standard infrared remote control. 3) Aura can be operated from a full-screen display. The prototype unit shown at Comdex sported a touch-screen TFT display perched on top of the unit. Very handsome, and I'm personally intrigued by the idea of having my home stereo sprouting an LCD display. 4) To save cost or to further integrate with entertainment systems, Aura can also output NTSC or PAL directly to a television, presumably nearby. TV control would be through a DVD-like interface. 5) Aura is an IP-connected device. This means it could be controlled from any web browser in the house... or from a wireless web tablet like the Qubit.

One of the many UI screens from Be's "Aura" -- a prototype of an MP3 home stereo convergence unit. Click for larger version.

...Including the Kitchen Sink

Aura should be able to burn CDs as well. In some implementations, it will be possible to dump your favorite playlists onto an audio CD. Or, if you prefer to have 10x more storage space per CD but don't mind having to find a computer or specialized portable for playback, Aura will be capable of burning MP3 data CDs too.

The Aura prototype is able to rip and encode an entire CD in two minutes flat. Or, rather, it makes it seem that way to the user. In reality, when you insert an audio CD and tell Aura to add its songs to your database, it rips raw audio from the CD first, making it immediately and transparently available for playback. Actual encoding to MP3 can then happen in the background later on. As a result, consumers can create a digital database of their CD collection more easily than they would be able to do on their computers. Smart.

There's another dimension to all of this that makes the whole system really sing. Aura can be connected to various back-end providers. For starters, there's the service responsible for looking up CDs in online databases and retrieving metadata (artist, title, genre, year, album covers, lyrics, etc.) I'd like to see Be's partners working with advanced services like the All Music Guide, which provides more than just data on the artist and track -- AMG has a thorough relational database that provides full music reviews, and lets you run live queries, like "find me more artists who have worked with this artist's producer," or "show me more stuff on the same label in this and similar genres". On the streaming side, offers MSP (Music Streaming Provider), and that field is ripe with possibilities as well. Of course, one can imagine lots of commerce connections, such as the ability to purchase CDs or concert tickets. And it goes without saying that OEMs will want to partner with music labels as they prepare to start selling portions of their catalogs online (embracing, rather than fearing digital music distribution). In fact, the partnerships OEMs are able to create with music providers may well become the single largest selling point for some consumers purchasing Aura devices.

So there are four major components here: The hardware, the operating system, the "application" (what the user actually sees), and the back-end services. While the first three can be hacked out in various ways by garage hobbiests, it's the latter stuff -- the business end -- that separates Aura from similar home-built devices.

If you want to jump to the next level with this, imagine how the concepts embodied in Aura could be extended to work with other forms of media, such as video. We live in exciting times.

Lingering Questions

Most users will never need to know, or even be curious about, the geekier aspects of how Aura devices work. But for the tweakers among us...

What kind of computer is at the heart of Aura?
The prototype device Be is showing is based on Intel's i810 chipset, with a 400MHz Celeron, 32MBs, and a 30GB drive. However, the hardware configuration is entirely up to the partner, and one can easily imagine devices with 120GBs or more of storage, or with removable storage devices. In fact, it would be great to see a drive manufacturer like Iomega get on board with this, leveraging it as way to sell lots of cartridges.

Does Aura run on BeOS or BeIA?
This is actually an existential question in disguise. BeIA is an umbrella term that includes both services and technology. BeIA has always been a two-pronged strategy, with information appliances on one tine of the fork and entertainment appliances on the other. Be's build system allows for the creation of custom OSes for custom purposes, drawing as necessary from technology in the BeIA codebase. In this case, Aura uses the attributed Be File System, whereas most BeIA devices use CFS (compressed file system), which is unattributed. Aura does not include the desktop as we know it, nor does it use the Tracker.

What other file formats does Aura handle?
The prototype handles any format supported by Be's Media Kit, which currently includes most major uncompressed audio formats plus MP3. Be's access to the RealPlayer engine should make it easy to play RA and even WMA files in the future. Like BeOS, Aura reads fixed drives and CDs formatted in ISO 9660, FAT16, FAT32, HFS, ext2fs, and BFS, as well as audio CDs. Analog and digital sources should be supported as well, making it possible to utilize input from from turntables, tape decks and microphones (the prototype I saw even had a non-functioning karaoke mode).

How will the unit keep track of users and their preferred musical styles?
Aura includes minimal multiuser support, enforced by user and group permissions in the Be File System. This will let users control whether other family members have access to their albums, and to establish person-specific genres, moods, custom playlists, and even skins.

What MP3 encoder is used by Aura?
The prototype uses the same bladeenc module found in BeOS (but with controllable bitrates). However, the final Aura platform could use any encoder to which Be obtains licensing rights, depending on the customer's wishes. I'd love to see them use the Fraunhofer MP3 encoder, revered for its high quality. Of course, nothing constrains Aura to MP3 -- vendors can request support for other codecs as well.

What about all the legal mumbo jumbo?
There are possible legal ramifications for any device capable of creating, receiving, and especially transmitting copyrighted music. However, the legal waters surrounding the Secure Digital Music Initiative are still quite muddy as its constituents continue to argue about implementation details. It's pretty difficult to be SDMI-compliant when there isn't yet an SDMI to be compliant with. Theoretically, Be could provide support for any protection mechanism a customer wants to see built in. The important lesson here is that Be is not calling the shots on this. Be's OEM customers will decide what kinds of protection mechanisms an Aura device should have, and Be will tailor the technology to that customer's specifications.

How will the operating system or interface be upgraded?
The reference design is updatable in the background via Be's new MAP (Management and Administration Platform), which allows device vendors to push codecs and OS-level updates to the user's machine without the user's intervention.

How much will Aura devices cost?
Since no vendors have officially announced, it's too early to say. However, I'm guessing that a device like this (without screen) could be sold for around $500 retail. Of course, mass manufacturing and distribution will eventually drive the price of such devices down. There are ways to make these things more cheaply, too. For example, a device built on the Geode architecture would be less expensive than an Intel i810-based device, but probably wouldn't have the horsepower to encode MP3 comfortably. Of course, inexpensive dedicated DSPs could be added to the device to compensate for the lower horsepower. An inexpensive version might also forgo the ability to burn CDs. Be will be involved in the process of integration and customization in addition to OS sales, which opens up multiple revenue possibilities.

What about audio quality?
Integrated chipsets aren't exactly known for sterling audio fidelity, though the i810's isn't bad. However, one may expect that some Aura implementations will include higher quality audio chipsets for more discriminating listeners. One can even imagine vendors adding their own DACs and A/D converters, or optical outputs capable of being connected to outboard DACs.

Will it be possible to plug in existing attributed BFS MP3 volumes?
There are many BeOS users out there who have amassed gigantic MP3 collections, fully attributed in the Be File System. It's not yet known whether existing BFS collections can be plugged in to the unit directly, but Be is planning to make it possible to read an external source through an Aura playlist. This means you should be able to tell a playlist to grab content from a USB-connected external drive or from another BeOS machine on your network. Those tracks would then be hoovered onto the Aura device.

Many thanks to Be's Entertainment Appliances Manager David Willenbrink and Director of Product Marketing Victor Medina for their cooperation in preparing this piece.

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