For the Birds

As Princeton University Press transitions from print to digital products, will it soar in its foray into the app market?

May 20, 2014

Princeton University Press hopes to molt from a publisher of print into an organization with a wide variety of ebooks and apps. One such offering, due out this summer is BirdGenie -- Shazam for birds.

While Princeton and other university presses normally have an extensive catalog of digital tools, the products are often based on print publications. BirdGenie, in comparison, has been developed from the ground up and will be marketed and sold on its own.

"Everything is moving toward digital -- we have to be positioned there,” said Robert Kirk, executive editor of the press’s field guides in biology, natural history and ornithology. “I’m always keen to try to stay ahead of the curve -- not to be at the bleeding edge, exactly -- but to make sure that everything I’m doing is still relevant, and that you’re offering to users every format that is available and every exciting new product you can think of. I always regard this as a basic survival tactic.”

Breaking into the app space is not simply for the birds, Kirk said, but a coup to establish more revenue sources for the university press -- and perhaps hatch a plan for an industry slowly migrating away from print.

“Clearly, it has to pay its way, and we hope to make money out of it,” said Kirk, who estimated the app was motivated equally by financial and personal reasons. “That’s important, because any of these projects are very expensive to put together, so we have to make sure that we can make them work financially.”

Kirk and the team behind BirdGenie often describe it as “Shazam for birds” -- but doing so glosses over its functionality, they said. On the surface, both apps analyze and identify songs. Shazam, the popular smartphone app that can identify a tune playing on the radio, looks for the exact fingerprint of a specific recording. In other words, the app sometimes struggles with cover songs and is stumped by live music.

“It’s asking, ‘Is this this exact song?’” Stephen T. Pope, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based coder and composer, said about Shazam. “We’re talking about sounds that may have a lot more variation.”

Crows, for example, only make a single squawk, while mourning doves sing a series of tones that form something that resembles a sentence. Others yet, such as the dozens of species of warblers in North America, are much more musical, Pope said.

“The first thing the app has to do is try to say ‘Am I looking at noise or speech or music?’ ” Pope said. “If you make that guess right, the rest isn’t difficult.”

The app builds on decades of work in the field of music information retrieval, using signal processing and a handful of artificial intelligence techniques to identify a bird from a catalog of 60 common species and 80 different vocalizations. In a practical sense, it means an amateur backyard birder can identify a bird by recording its song with a smartphone. Once the app finds a complete or partial match, users can play back vocalizations and view 3D models of the bird to confirm.

The recordings can be uploaded to the app’s website, shared with friends and, yes, even tweeted. But by giving anyone the ability to identify the birds in their region, the creators also hope to launch a crowdsourced initiative to track populations and migration patterns.

“Ultimately we’re hoping those sample points ... could be used for citizen science research,” said Tom Stephenson, an audio engineer and accomplished birder. “Right now the scientific community doesn’t have a great library of song sparrows across the country, and there are a lot of different dialects that exist.”

The university press and the app developers have therefore discussed a potential data partnership with Cornell University. The institution is licensing its library of bird vocalizations for use in the app.

Priced at $2.99, BirdGenie may seem as though it could eat into the readership of print books such as The Warbler Guide, published by Princeton, which costs $29.95 and helps birders tell 56 different species of warblers apart. But the team behind the app said they hoped birders will flock to the app as a portable companion to -- and not a replacement for -- books and other sources of information.

“The one thing about field guides is that the print medium isn’t quite sufficient for the information that you’re trying to relay, but it’s been the only vehicle up until recently,” said Stephenson, who co-authored The Warbler Guide. “Having a vehicle like an app or an ebook that has multimedia capabilities is not only natural, but really adds a lot value. The song identification app is another step further.”

The fledgling app will go into beta in a few weeks, leading up to a launch of dedicated East and West Coast versions for Android and iOS devices early this summer. Pope and Stephenson said future entries in the app series could identify birds not native to the U.S. -- perhaps even different animals.

“There are other species where this would be very applicable,” Pope said. “One of my goals would be to have someone pay me to track the migration of whales.”


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