Silent surfing may soon be a thing of the past

You would think with all the racket about MP3s and Web radio stations, surfing the Internet would be a noisy pastime. But it’s not. Web sites are like silent movies with mouse clicks for sound tracks.

One company, Beatnik, hopes to break the Internet sound barrier like talkies revolutionized the silver screen. With Beatnik Player tools, designers can wire their sites with interactive sounds and music.

Yahoo Digital, BowieNet and MTV On-line are audible thanks to Beatnik. When you surf these sites with the free, 400KB downloadable Beatnik Player browser add-on, you hear ambient music in the background. Images and links offer sound effects as you mouse over them.

When you surf a Beatnik version of Yahoo Digital, for example, you’ll hear sound effects, musical riffs and song previews. Beatnik sounds are instantaneous and, like MP3 music tracks, are near-CD-quality.

A Race for Earballs

Leading the Beatnik campaign is Thomas Dolby Robertson, a reinvented 1980s recording artist turned Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He was made famous by his hit song, She Blinded Me With Science. The cofounder of Beatnik (formerly called Headspace) has worked for six years to bring his tech-pop approach to the Web.

Not many sites are listening yet, but Beatnik should benefit from the growing popularity of rich media and music on-line thanks, in part, to high-speed Internet access, said Lorraine Hariton, Beatnik’s chief executive officer.

The vendor recently licensed Beatnik content to Web radio giant OnRadio, which has 600 affiliate stations. Last month, Yahoo Digital signed up. Anyone can add license-free Beatnik sounds to their home page.

Seven million Web surfers have downloaded the Beatnik Player, Hariton said. Analysts estimate about 300 Web sites have been “sonified,” Beatnik slang meaning wired with sound.

No Bandwidth Bummers

MP3 and RealNetwork Inc.’s RealPlayer stream audio files over the Internet. But the Beatnik Player reads digital instructions embedded in Web sites. The code tells the Beatnik synthesizer on your system what notes to create, their length and their intensity.

The Beatnik audio engine is essentially a library of sounds paired with a synthesizer. Because Beatnik needs only to download the sheet music, not a whole song, sound tracks and sound effects load quickly.

“Used intelligently, sound can make surfing a lot of fun,” said Lucas Graves, a Jupiter Communications Inc. analyst. But the prevailing notion is that Web site design is not about sound, he adds.

Beatnik’s challenge is changing people’s concept of what sound brings to the Web, Graves said. Most people associate Web site sounds with cheesy MIDI clips of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” That must change for people to take on-line tunes seriously.

Beatnik sells software tools for Beatnik sounds to Web site designers, and licenses its technology to firms like Macromedia. Beatnik also creates custom sound applications for Web sites, and plans to sell theme audio Beatnik collections on-line.