VR: is it any surprise that it’s all about content?

I don’t think anyone will be shocked about the main outcomes of a recent survey carried out by Vicon: the two main barriers to widespread adoption are perceived to be cost and high quality content. This hasn’t really changed since the last VR explosion over a decade ago.

In simple terms, these two criteria are achievable. Affordable tech is just around the corner from Sony, HTC etc, and an even lower entry barrier exists in the use of current high end phones plus Google Cardboard. The visual quality of the content even on these low-end platforms blows the old VR experiences out of the water. But this over-simplifies the situation.

First off, affordability is not the only factor regarding the hardware is comfort/ease of use. Do people want to be hooked up to some PC/set-top box/console through a cumbersome umbilical? Will they remember to ensure their wireless version is charged, and will their WiFi/Bluetooth hold up reliably (especially if the whole family are using it)?

Secondly, high quality of course doesn’t just apply to the visual fidelity, how many games have made the mistake of thinking great graphics = commercial success? Yes we can push hi-res images into your eyes in stereo at framerates that won’t make you feel ill, but what are the pictures of? We we want to engage with it, and for how long?

People are getting wary of the hype. We were sold stereo 3D as the next revolution in linear media (for the umpteenth time), and yes, the blockbuster films can still fill cinemas, but they may well do that anyway. Where’s all the great content in my living room?

I sat there, excitedly awaiting the BBC’s first broadcast in 3D from Wimbledon, which was a perfect example of a “what’s the point” moment: unless the ball is going to hit you in the face, tennis in 3D adds little to tennis in 2D. Likewise the Olympics, is it really worth the hassle to watch the 100 metre final in 3D?  Other TV shows were more impressive, such as the Strictly final and Dr Who special, because there’s more control and staging that you can do to make the most of the stereo effect.  Hardly surprising that BBC pulled the plug on the experiment. I wonder how many 3D glasses are now sitting neglected in the corner of living rooms around the world?

So as ever, content is king. We need engaging, compelling content to go to the trouble of popping on that headset or pressing that cardboard to our face. And it’s coming.

Was any Star Wars fan at SIGGRAPH last year not excited by the work at ILM’s XLab? Being able to wander around the Star Wars universe while the story unfolds, seeing different aspects of the story or moving the camera to watch from a different angle is FUN. Being chased by aliens in the The Mill/Google ATAP ‘Help’ is FUN.  Playing Minecraft on an Oculus Rift is FUN!

So whilst the survey tells us some truths about what the future of VR needs, they’re not new nor are they a shock. What is important is that this time, there’s a much greater chance of getting this right. The pieces are all there, we just need to put them together in the right way.

Ashes to ashes…

I blame Star Wars for getting me into Bowie.

When I was just getting into music, the late seventies/early eighties, I got drawn in by the synth-pop that was emerging. The first single I bought was Are ‘friends’ electric? by Tubeway Army. The original release of Star Wars had ignited my love of Sci-Fi , and the futuristic sound of Numan and the other bands at the time was an obvious entry into the world of music.

My older brother was living with us at the time, and when I played my first Tubeway Army 7″ single on my mum’s old record player he said “It’s good, but sounds just like Bowie”.

I was devastated. Who was this ‘Bowie’ that my bother (clearly mistakenly) thought Numan had pilfered from? How could anybody prior to my generation have invented anything so original?

“Listen to this” said my brother, and put on the double live album Stage. I sat dumbstruck. WTF?!?! Not only is it better than the stuff now, it sounded fresher.

I spent the next month secretly working my way through my bother’s substantial Bowie collection, probably wearing out his copies of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, Young Americans… (sorry bruv)! When he moved out I had to buy them all for myself, tsk!

Then Bowie released Ashes to Ashes, and out-new romantic’ed all the bright young things, and that was that. He was the king.

Was everything he did great? No. Was he always original? Hell no, and he’d be the first to acknowledge his influences. But has anyone had such an impact on music and popular culture over such a long period? I don’t think so. My all time favourite tracks/albums are dominated by his own work and by songs by other artists that you can hear his influence on.

We’ve lost a true great, but the world is a better place for him sharing his talent with us.

Thanks David.

A recipe for innovative degree programmes: the great creative bake off

Over 12 years experience of delivering the specialist skills that the creative industries want.
A handful of professionals at the forefront of their fields.
Some students who know what it is like to be part of the learning process.
Buckets full of a well-established model for developing the craft skills for successful careers.
A carefully measured portion of studio-based learning theory.
Essence of critical thinking and reflective practice.
A large bag of ideas.

Blend all the ingredients in a suitable space with some academic rigor at room temperature.
Mix in some design thinking and leave to develop, constantly stirring to ensure the theory and practice don’t become irrevocably separated.
Test the mixture regularly to ensure that it has the right combination of knowledge, skills, theory and practice, adjusting the mixture accordingly.
Separate into small manageable portions and leave to prove.
Once the portions have risen to their potential, place the entire batch in a validation oven at a high temperature with a top 20 university.
After several hours, remove and voila:
Three deliciously innovative integrated masters programmes!
BA/MArt The Art of Visual Effects
BA/MArt The Art of Computer Animation
BA/MArt The Art of Video Games

Mary and Paul would be proud. Not a soggy anything in sight!

That was easy, what’s next?

BBC Audience Council England – Five Years…

…and as Bowie said, my brain hurts a lot.

Today was my last meeting as a member of the BBC Trust Audience Council England (ACE). It’s been a fascinating 5 years. I’m not sure if I’ve seen more change in my life or in the BBC in that time. From a personal perspective I’ve moved house, changed job and had two children. The BBC has been through DQF, reviews of most of its services, had three DGs and the Trust has had three chairs. To say it’s been hectic would be an understatement.

So, have all the meetings, documents to digest and travelling been worth it?

Yes. For a number of reasons and I’ll summarise some of them here:

  1. It’s been a great seeing what talented and committed people work at the BBC, in all its parts. This won’t be a big surprise to most people who have anything beyond a consumer relationship with the organisation, but to meet with so many people who, despite what some of the press would like us to believe, are dedicated to making the best content out there is reassuring. This goes right through the organisation from what I’ve seen, from the smallest local radio station to the people behind the biggest shows. From that point of view, all is well at the BBC.
  2. Seeing inside the Tardis*.

    This has to be the highlight in a sad, geeky way. Of course it’s nowhere as impressive as it looks on-screen (especially from the outside). There does exist a picture of me in there, but if I showed it to you I’d have to kill you I’m afraid, we were sworn to secrecy. There were other ‘behind the scenes’ places that we visited, and seeing the new Broadcasting House during construction was also a high point, but the Tardis takes the biscuit.
  3. Mitigating the impact of DQF on local and regional news and current affairs. This proper the proper work of ACE. I obviously only played a small part of the consultations and discussions about this, but being able to argue for some protection for local radio and TV, particularly current affairs in the form of Inside Out, was a battle worth fighting. Regional local affairs could have virtually disappeared off the map, so at least it’s still there, although it can be said that the cuts have still taken their toll in terms of the range of subjects and quality of investigation that they can now achieve. Let’s hope it continues and remains a vital part of the regional output.
  4. Visiting BBC sites across the country. Besides the obvious London and Salford, I’ve been lucky enough to see the BBC in action in a number of other cities from Bristol to Birmingham. The presence of the BBC in these places has had a hugely positive impact on the region. Even Birmingham is starting buzz again after a significant dip.
  5. Chairing the ACE input to the Asian Network and Syndication Policy reviews and contributing to reviews of the radio, TV and online services. The time, care and effort that goes into these is quite amazing, and although I’m sure sometime people dismiss these as paying lip service to accountability, nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course there have been some real lows too, and sometimes it seemed like both the Trust and the BBC were intent on self-destruction in a very public way, much to the delight of the rest of the media world. There are also major challenges ahead, both in terms of the governance facing questioning both internally and externally and the future of the license fee, who knows what the future holds for the BBC?

My opinion that it must survive in some way, shape or form is not born out of sentimentalism or a misplaced nostalgia. The BBC still makes an enormous difference to the world: by fostering new talent and giving it space to breath; by making programmes that nobody else would; by serving communities that no commercial organisation would serve; by innovating and changing the way we consume its products. Of course it’s not perfect, and to continue to be relevant it needs to change at an even faster pace than it has to date. But it’s ours and it’s the envy of the rest of the world.

Contributing a tiny bit to this has been a privalage, and balancing this work with the day job and all the other life changes has been a struggle at times. But all in all it’s been a great five years, even if I do agree with Bowie: my head does hurt a lot!

Are you interested in becoming a member of one of the Audience Council England’s Regional Panels? Apply via:bbc.in/1IiTmKj

* Yes, I know you can do a set tour now, but you couldn’t then and it seemed more special because of that.

Day One in the School of Media, Design & Technology (working title)

So today was the first day of Engineering & Informatics as an entity, and the first day of the three schools that make it up: Engineering, Computing & Telecoms and Media, Design & Technology. And don’t forget to put the ‘working title’ after most of those names, and or rearrange those words into your favourite order.

First day as Head of MDT was eventful, but unfortunately not all related to MDT.

Meeting, greeting and introducing one of our graduates who has written a forth-coming book on Maya to some of our current masters students was good. He’ll be a great resource for those learning 3D for the first time.

Next was racing down into town for a very good City of Film board meeting. Some great stuff reported, and some very promising plans being hatched. Stay tuned.

I had to leave there early to get back for some teaching, and it was great to meet the final year students for the first time this year. I think this went OK, despite stepping in for a colleague at the last minute (get well soon), and there were certainly some good ideas. The packed schedule meant I had to leave before managing to answer all the questions at the end, so if you were there and reading this, please email me any outstanding questions!

So that’s day one. It’s unlikely that day two can be busier, but it hopefully more MDT-related, especially with the first E&I assembly.

A new Bowie album? How delightfully unoriginal!

So there’s a Bowie studio album at number one. How very 1993/1984/1983/1980/1974/1973/1973.

Time to reminisce.

As a young and impressional youth, my first single was “Are ‘friends’ electric?” by Tubeway Army. By today’s standards, judging by the fetuses screaming for Justin Bieber, I was a later starter at 13. There had been a brief error of judgement with a David Soul single, but I discount that as due to my adoration of Starsky and Hutch (that’s the excellent original TV series, not the lame recent film). I also don’t tell anyone about that, even though I still have the 7″ single…whoops.

Tubeway Army of course led to Gary Numan, the Human League, Bauhaus, even early Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. Around this time my brother moved back in with us for a while. He’s twenty years my senior, and so as a small child he was almost like an uncle, being at work and getting married and all that grown up stuff. But he was wise and cool. He drove an Alfa Romeo, knew all there was to know about football and had a job that took him to America. He was also a massive Bowie fan.

I can remember being so dismissive when he drew comparisons between Bowie and the stuff I was listening too. How could they not be completely original, these masters of the synth and studio?

He knew how to win me over. He played me some of the first record of the double album Stage. A highly polished ‘live’ album that is a wall of synthesisers and catchy tunes mixed with doom-laden anthems. He was so right, Bowie had done it all before. I didn’t disown my previous heroes, but I certainly looked upon them in a new light.

Then of course Scary Monsters came out. Game over. He’d out played them all, and roped Steve Strange into his video. Genius. To the record store to blow all the pennies I’d saved for the next Human League album to buy Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, Low…the list went on. How long had he been churning out this stuff?

Enough of his previous work and my devotion to it. What of the new album?

Well there’s not an original note on it. It’s derivative. It’s reusing old ideas and reselling them to both the new and old generations.

But it’s reusing HIS old ideas. There are hints of so many previous Bowie songs it’s hard to keep count. It’s like meeting an old friend after years apart, sharing a pint and finding that you still have the same sense of humour. 

It’s a great album. He is a still a genius.

Looking forward to the next number one album in 2033.