Is it really four years since I added a post here? I find it hard to believe that, but it’s certainly true to say that there have been a busy few years in-between posts.

Since my last post, we’ve launched an undergraduate degree programme, had our first batch of graduates, and seen a whole bunch of Star Wars universe films that I’ve not even commented on.

To say I’m proud of that first batch of UG Escapees would be a massive understatement. I can’t claim a great deal of credit for what they achieved as I merely stood back and tried not to get in the way. I knew it would all work out as they were talented, passionate and in the hands of some expert tutors, but there were some bumps along the road that’s for sure. How could there not be when not only was this a new degree programme, but it was like no other degree programme in the UK? But the most important part is that they all grew massively during their time with us. And so the students will become masters. Job done.

But back to now, and there is the whole COVID-19 pandemic, which is scary stuff, especially for anyone who has watched the Walking Dead (or even more scarily, read the comics). Why are people watching stuff like Contagion and playing Pandemic? Is it not a bit too real at the moment?

Talking of comics (or if you want to try and sound more grown up, ‘graphic novels’), they seem to be the inspiration for most interesting new media these days. Let’s set aside the plethora of Marvel and DC media being churned out (much as I love it), and let’s look either side of the crowded dual carriageway to the side roads of Locke and Key (good fun), Umbrella Academy (brilliant, although I may have been influenced by my Dark Horse trainers) and October Faction (not the finest TBH). I  may be biased, but there’s more originality there than in your mainstream costume drama or soap opera.

Umbrella Academy
Dark Horse’s Umbrella Academy was always ripe for a Netflix adaptation

But I digress. I  have really been inspired to wake this dead blog by the recent unprecedented events that have led to us all at the very least been semi-imprisoned in our homes and at the worst losing someone close to us.  We are all living in a crazy world that is part post-apocalyptic hell in which within in days Mad Max will be hunting us down for that last gallon of diesel (let’s face it, he won’t find any petrol for that Chrysler V8) and part a very British slide into anarchy in which Boris politely expires and hands the country over to Dominic Cummings and his pack of rabid attack dogs. I think Bowie predicted it all nicely.

But in these times I have been inspired. Inspired by how quickly people have adapted. Inspired by the dedication on key workers putting themselves and their families at risk by continuing to keep essential services running. And inspired by my friends and colleagues who have changed to the new world in which a hug and shake of the hands has been replaced by an emoji and a video-concerned smile.

What’s also been interesting is the speed that our students have adapted to the new normal of online comms. It should be no surprise that a generation already living in the always-connected, on-demand world of Discord and Twitch have adapted with relative ease to this enforced physical isolation, even though I know they are voracious social animals that joined us because of our high numbers of contact hours in a studio environment. I’m adapting more slowly to existing more online than in real life, now I’m watching highly paid football players playing FIFA 20 and beautifully edited Gran Turismo battles in place of live sport. I know many of you knew it all already, but sport is dead, long live eSports.

Gran Turismo – more exciting than real motorsport

And on that note, I’ll sign off, looking forward to another day of video conferences, messenger chats and phone calls whilst trying to school two young children. I think I needed to write something longer than the usual chat message or email to prove that I could still string together a few ideas coherent piece. Nobody will read it, but I feel better for it. Let’s see if it’s four years before the next instalment. Au revoir.

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

* 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.