Exclusive: BBC leads the next wave of web experience with Hemlock

header-logoThe BBC is getting into truly real-time interactive web apps with a new open source framework called Hemlock, developed by London-based Mint Digital, and available as of today.

The Beeb’s Children’s Department has licensed the technology to develop a peer-to-peer card trading game based on its hugely popular mixed reality show BAMZOOKi, which is sort of like Robot Wars meets Knightmare. This (slightly dated) video should elucidate:

Adam Khwaja, a producer working across BBC interactive and multiplatform projects with a particular interest in user experience, says the appeal comes from the casual approach to gameplay that Hemlock allows; being able to dive straight into a realtime multiplayer game without having to register or face a steep learning curve. The kids love it, apparently.

Mint developed Hemlock to solve a problem they had in developing Football3s, an interactive fantasy football game designed to be played in real-time alongside actual football matches. The problem is that most real-time interactive web experiences are not real-time at all. It’s all simulated, with the front-end site constantly polling the back-end database for changes to the data. Or as one of the Mint team says on the Hemlock blog, “the web’s current top notch technology is like an impatient and really annoying child“.

For apps that attract thousands of users, all this interaction becomes very processor-heavy and the application itself is subject to high latency, which  the user experiences as a sluggish or unresponsive app. Hemlock’s approach is to combine Flash and XMPP, the protocol that powers presence notification and real-time communication.

It works in a similar way to push email; Hemlock registers a client with the server to receive messages. The server then notifies the client when there is a new message — no polling required. It also means that multiple users can interact with the same data in real-time.

The framework paves the way for web applications of a different calibre, making it easier for developers to get started on building cool apps without having to worry about the low-level foundation stuff. Hemlock was soft-launched last week and received with excitement by the web development community.

The potential for commercial applications is vast. Game play is obviously a winner; think how much fun Lexulous or any other Facebook app could be if you were playing in real-time, rather than taking asynchronous turns. There’s also a market in educational software, with the potential for collaborative canvases to get students working together. I’m pretty sure the digital marketing agencies will pick up on it as well, as the next level of viral marketing.