General Harmonics is a small startup from Canada that’s looking to revolutionize the way we stream media. And rather than risk sounding like I’m writing some kind of self-parody, I’ll be blunt about it: they’re basically Pied Piper from HBO’s Silicon Valley, only with a few decades more experience and technology that’s way farther along.
For those unfamiliar with the show, the protagonists have started a company that makes compression software that makes files incredibly small, allowing for faster downloads and taking up less storage than they would otherwise.
What General Harmonic’s technology does is similar in outcome but entirely different in implementation. Instead of compressing files down to ever smaller sizes, the company looks at media as “systems of information,” or very detailed descriptions of the parts they’re composed of.
For instance, that means that a song is seen in terms of its vocals and the instruments played. The description of each of those elements takes up less space than the actual digital audio file would — so much less, General Harmonics claims it can deliver CD-quality music in one-twentieth the original file size.
In a demo app tested on AT&T’s 3G service last week (we were indoors and suffering from a bad connection), the company showed off some of what their encoding system allows for.
You can have a Shazam-like feature where you hold your phone up to playing music and the app can immediately determine where you are in the song, download it, and sync up audio, and show lyrics for that exact part of the song — all in the time that Shazam would have taken to figure out what a song was. Or, if you overheard a song you like on Pandora, you could put your phone up to the speaker and have it instantly start playing the music video synced with the music already playing.
Songs can also carry other data, like which artists are playing which instruments in specific portions of songs. General Harmonics eventually wants to expose all of that data about media encoded in its format through an application programming interface, allowing for things like games that can access the music you’re playing to influence what’s happening as you play. One could also envision a future version of SoundCloud that lets users instantly create new, high-quality mixes of songs from within the web app by tweaking and blending different parts of songs on the fly.
With music streaming eating downloads, it’s becoming increasingly important for users to be able to receive their content instantly. People no longer think they should have to plug in their phone to sync with their computer’s library of downloaded media — they want it accessible right away at any time.
Reducing the amount of data that needs to be pushed to deliver the same or better quality music has advantages for companies and consumers. Big streamers like Spotify, Pandora, or Apple could significantly cut down on server costs — or, more likely, serve customers better for the same level of spending.
General Harmonic’s technology could have the biggest impact in developing markets in Africa and Asia, where billions of people are expected to get smartphones over the next half-decade but many lack access to the 4G and LTE networks available in the United States and Europe. Those people could receive many of the benefits of modern infrastructure without needing all of the hardware if they don’t need to send around as many bits.
After seven years operating in stealth, General Harmonics is now out looking for strategic partners to roll out its technology. Obviously, the music distribution platforms are essentially settled at this point; the company has no plans to become a music subscription service and compete with Pandora, Beats, and Spotify for the attention of music lovers.
The only plausible outcome is to get their technology into the hands of as many big players as it can. The company confirmed that it plans to white-label and license its technology over the coming months, and that it had meetings with several prominent firms in the media space in Silicon Valley early last week, though a spokesperson declined to comment on the particular companies.