Media Perspective: New killer gadgets can assist social media innovation

I expect you're all pretty fed up with all this "social media" chat by now. And fair enough.

Everyone's got a branded Facebook app, everyone's done something on MySpace, everyone's blogging. What room is there left for social media innovation?

Well, you might find one clue if you google "Olinda radio" and "Schulze and Webb". The Olinda is a prototype concept built by Schulze and Webb for the BBC to demonstrate some of the possibilities of social networking and media embedded in physical objects. It's a DAB radio with a wi-fi backchannel, so it can both receive and transmit information, opening up all sorts of interesting possibilities. There are little lights on the front, for instance, which you can designate to represent your friends. Then, when you turn your radio on, those lights show you what station your friends are listening to - press a button and you're listening along together.

It's not the most startling technical development ever, but neither was SMS, and that became rather popular. That's why a physical prototype is so useful. Killer applications often aren't invented in the lab: they get invented in the wild, in completely unpredictable ways. But, in some ways, the radio itself isn't the interesting story here: it's who built it. First, it's the BBC, which isn't going to get into the business of building and selling radios. This is a device to provoke questions and, hopefully, stimulate innovation in the radio market.

The BBC could have just written a paper and some technical specs, but it decided to make some physical prototypes. There's something about real, solid objects that engages the brain in a way abstract ideas never can. So, good for them. But many of the possibilities for a device like this are commercial ones, so why aren't prototypes like this being invented by our great commercial media businesses - the buyers, the sellers, the planners? They talk a lot about thought-leadership, but never seem to get beyond PowerPoint. They'd lead more thought, and get more decent PR, if they actually embodied their ideas in some objects.

And using a specialist design business such as Schulze and Webb is interesting too. It's not a typical industrial design company: a lot of its experience has been in building social network experiences in software, for the web and for mobile phones. It could be making good money building social networks for brands and communication agencies, but has recognised that the real opportunity is in adding that expertise directly into the product, going further upstream than most agencies ever dream. And by doing that, they're leapfrogging most of their peers. Social networking isn't a poking-and-Scrabulous fad: it's where communications between people and businesses is going to happen. Do you understand it well enough?