2014-02-06

Co.Labs

How An "Evil Router" Can Help You Build Wi-Fi Devices That Actually Work

The creators of the streaming music device Beep had to get devilish to test the reliability of their new product.



How do you transition people from physical music--CDs, radios, home theater--toward Internet listening? In the mind of Daniel Conrad, founder of Beep, you connect that existing stereo system to the cloud.

“With our dial, and the way the lights respond to touch, we hope that we’re evoking some of that magic again," he says. "At the same time, Beep is a digital product. So we present a simple interface for the digital age--for example, tap once to start the music.”

Like an Apple Airport Express, Beep is a small piece of hardware that enables almost any pair of speakers to become an output for streaming music. But unlike other wireless speakers, you actually interact with this device: It's a large tactile dial that has light indicators for volume level and blinks to show it’s buffering--like a smarter version of the giant volume knob already on your receiver. This initial product is up for pre-order with wider partnerships planned for the future.

Who Cares About Wireless Speakers?

Wireless speakers may not seem important, but it’s the foundation of transitioning people from locally stored music files to music that’s streamed from the Internet. The only way streaming music works out financially is if there's a lot more people paying into the pool to pay rights holders. This is why the wireless speaker space and the incumbent Sonos has seen increased competition from Bose, Samsung, and Pure, to name a few.

If Sonos follows the Apple and iOS model with a closed and controlled system, then Beep is Android. Beep was born out of the need to be more flexible and cheaper. It makes sense that Beep has partnered with Pandora, which has also taken the same open approach and tried to be a part of as many devices as possible. Conrad wouldn’t tip his hand about future partners other than to say there definitely would be more music sources coming. If I had to guess, however, Spotify seems like a good fit as the company already has Spotify Connect in place for just this type of thing.

If Beep can do the same on the hardware side and make every speaker sold at Best Buy or Target a Beep speaker--sold by whatever brand--there’s the better chance the company can push its vision for all speakers to be connected. Conrad says that he sees every speaker being wirelessly connected to streaming content within two to four years.

The Reality Of Connected Speakers

Not only does Beep allow someone to stream music directly to a pair of speakers, if there are multiple units connected you can sync them up and play music throughout the house. I saw a live demo of this function: multiple Beep devices synced up and streaming music together. It worked great, but did make me wince a little to think of the technical details making this all happen since Beep connects using standard Wi-Fi rather than some proprietary protocol.

Anyone responsible for their home’s wireless router understands the frustrations that come along with the technology, so sending high-quality music over a Wi-Fi network seems like a bad idea. I asked Conrad how the team built something to account for homes with unreliable networks as well as other potential problems.

“Wi-Fi loses packets of data all the time, communication latency is unknown, and so getting synchronization right is far from trivial," says Conrad. "Building a system that is robust to all of these potential failure points, that music keeps playing and stays synced, requires a lot of testing and a lot of work. We’ve spent the last year and a half effectively building a software layer that abstracts away all these network failure points so the music can keep playing seamlessly even when the network is unreliable."

The team even created its own Wi-Fi router software for testing. "We call it 'Evil Router,'" he says, and it is "designed to break in every way a Wi-Fi network can: throwing out packets, interrupting connection, knocking Beeps off the network. So we’re building a system that’s stable even in the worst environment.”

[Image: Flickr user Kishkumen]