River views, flying cars and serious fun: standing room only

It’s been a week since the first Pearson College London Open Day that I was involved in, so there’s been time to digest all the facts and reflect on how the day went. But my opinion hasn’t changed.

They were fantastic.

When I knew that we were holding the Open Days in venues including the embankment level and the 10th floor (11 floors between them), people had to be signed into the building and issued with a visitor’s pass, and most placed they needed to go were accessible only to those with a keycard, I may have feared the worst. And with such a tightly packed schedule that any slippage could throw the whole day out, what could possibly go wrong??!!

And you know what:? Nothing did. To the best of my knowledge, everybody saw and heard what they wanted to, nobody got lost or trapped in the depths of 80 Strand, and everyone had a good time. Brilliant.


We had standing room only to hear about our new degrees in VFX, animation and games, with people asking very sensible questions and showing real enthusiasm for the subjects. Our ‘taster’ sessions from our head of 2D (Davi Stein) and head of 3D (Mark Spevick) let people get an idea of what they’ll learn if they study with us, plus some fascinating insights into industry tricks, such as how you make a real police car fly through the air like it was blown away by a jet engine! Not something students will actually be doing in person, but understanding how you deal with these shots and incorporate them into the final footage is an essential skill.

How do they do that?

The weather played its part too, with a beautiful day giving gloroius views from the balcony.

All in all it was a great showcase for the PCL degrees, and it was great to meet so many talented people who clearly already have an idea of where they want to go in life. I think we had some serious fun, which is what we’re all about after all.

What more could you ask?

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.

If you don’t use it, you lose it. Thoughts about the National Media Museum

Long before I worked in Bradford, I visited the National Media Museum, then called the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television. I was in Yorkshire for a few days, staying Leeds whilst taking in a gig (ah, those were the days), and wanted to do a bit of sight-seeing. Being an avid photographer and cinema goer, the Museum sounded like the ideal place to spend a few hours.

It was very different of course in those days, but won me over completely. Not as interactive as museums now need to be for the YouTube generation, it still had a great selection of exhibits and things you could play with (using a vision mixer, getting ‘blue-screened’ onto a flying carpet, etc.). I left Yorkshire to head back down South feeling that I had spent my time well and telling everyone about what a gem the Museum was.

Several years later, I’d finished my doctorate and was looking to start an academic career. I had three offers of a job, one in the South, one in the North East, and one from Bradford. Two things made me choose Bradford: the advice of my supervisor, the late Professor Dick Grimsdale, whose opinion in these matters I valued extremely highly, and the fact that I remembered the wonderful Museum.

After working in the Computing Department for a couple of years, I had the opportunity to move to the ‘EIMC Unit’. This innovative department ran courses in digital media (before digital media was a term) jointly with Bradford College and the Museum. The chance to work closely with the experts from the Museum and to have access to their facilities was far too tempting, and I was lucky enough to move across the EIMC shortly afterwards. I’ve been working here ever since.

Besides the professional interest, the Museum was an essential destination when some of ‘my friends from the South’ came to visit. Not only was it a great place to wander round and grab a bite to eat, I was also proud to shatter the preconceived ideas about what people would and wouldn’t find in Bradford. A national museum? In Bradford? You’re kidding?

(Of course this does beg the question “why not?”. Why should nearly all the national museums be in London? Why is it the Northern ones that are under threat rather than the facilities in the London ones? But I’m not going to get political here, I’ll save that for another time.)

All that was a long time ago. It’s no longer the first place that I take people. I don’t go to see films there as often as a I did. I don’t grab a coffee or a bite to eat there very often.

Sure, part of this is because my life has changed. I don’t get to the cinema much at all anymore now I’ve got two small children. I’m much busier than I was as a young(ish), energetic chap enjoying the good life in a Northern town.

But I take it for granted. I forget how lucky I am to have a national museum, especially one on a such an interesting topic, right on my doorstep. I forget how fortunate I am to have the Bradford International Film Festival here every year, how very lucky I am to have the Bradford Animation Festival on my doorstep. How amazing it is to be in the world’s first UNESCO City of Film. Other cities would bite your hand off to have such a great institution in their centre.

So the time has come to use it rather than lose it. Visit it. Use the café. Use the cinema. Take people there. Because even if all the campaigning works and the museum stays open, to be sustainable it needs people to use it more.

And I need to remember why I came to Bradford in the first place, and why I later came to live and work here.

Save the National Media Museum from Simon Lawson on Vimeo.

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.

Hey, the controller’s got a light on it! Cool!

After waiting eagerly for the PS4 announcement last night, what can I say?

No really, what can I say that won’t sound like I’m just not bothered?

Besides the disappointment of the Dual Shock 4 controller (yep, it really does look like an old controller with a touch pad and light gaffer-taped on), and the fact that we didn’t actually see the beast (my bet is it looks like a PC at the moment BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT IT IS), the demos were mind numbing. Pretty, but mind numbing.

We had ‘Knack’, which looks like Kameo on steroids. Cute, but no game changer. We had another Killzone, which looked pretty, but is just another FPS judging by what was shown, and worse that that the opening scene was SO clichéd it was beyond parody. We had Drive Club, a Gran Turismo replacement launch game to show off shiny cars.

OK, Media Molecule has some wacky sculpting and puppetry tools that looked fun, and Second Son looked like a well put together demo, but what’s new?

There was a lot of talk about ’emotion’ again (hasn’t there always been at a PS launch?), and nothing getting between the player and the game. It seems to me that Sony’s willingness to take risks and truly push gaming is long gone. The recognition that their unique console architectures are just too expensive and hard to programme and reverting to a PC-like architecture seems like an admission of defeat. And the nervous, stumbling presentations didn’t have the swagger and humour of previous launches (I still talk about the ‘rubber duck’ demo for the PS3).

The graphic power is clearly up there, with some nice character demos etc. but that’s not really enough any more is it?

The bit they started with, the ability to share video and your screen with some nice quick compression/decompression seemed to be their only attempt at a ‘USP’. And would that make be buy a new console?

This could be the first Playstation I don’t buy. Which given the happy hours that I spent the One, Two and Three I find a bit sad.

Fun. And Games.

This year I’m teaching a module again that I used to teach many moons ago: History and Conventions of Computer Games. It was actually called H&C of Video Games way back then, but that’s progress for you! It’s a first year module for the BA and BSc games students. When we first introduced games into the curriculum it was the days of the PS1, and students had to design a Doom level. Today they use UDK. Now that IS progress!

For the first session, I reintroduced something that I used to do when the module first started: a session playing games. I know what that sounds like, but this actually serves some very useful purposes. First off it’s a bit of an ice breaker, hopefully getting people to discuss the games they’re playing. Gamers tend to have strong opinions about different games and even entire genres, so it’s always good to see where people’s allegiances are. They also have to fill in a ‘review’ for every game that they play that hopefully gets them to think a bit beyond the initial knee jerk reaction. Always good when they might be playing something outside their comfort zone, and hopefully at least one game they’ve never even considered playing.

When choosing what games to include, I wanted to try and make sure that most people will play at least one game they haven’t played before. This is of course quite difficult with some of the hardcore gamers that the courses attract, but to help with this it’s useful to raid the archives. This then presents its own problems fo course.

Digging through my cupboard at home and the equipment store here, I gathered together two original Xboxes, two PS2s, two 360s, a GameCube, a Dreamcast and an N64. These together with the PS3 in the room meant plenty of variety of kit. The next problem was setting it all up.

Tech support did a great job of swapping out the existing monitors and putting some in with composite inputs. This was fine for everything except the Dreamcast and the N64, which wouldn’t drive the composite inputs (don’t ask me what the point is of putting in a composite input that only supports a minimum resolution, cost cutting I guess). After sorting this problem, the final hurdle was a failed Dreamcast drive. Luckily our very own TV star Kaye had a replacement tucked away that she could lend me. It’s good to have plenty of game geeks about!

Next, what games to choose? I wanted some that everyone had to play and a few wild cards that people could use if they wanted to. I ended up with a few compulsory games: Goldeneye (N64), Armored Core for Answer (PS3), Space Channel 5 (Dreamcast) and one of Hello Kitty Roller Rescue (Xbox) or Spice World (PS1 game running on a PS2). Scattered about we had XIII, Manhunt, The Getaway, Vib Ribbon, Pokemon Stadium, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Viewtiful Joe, Soul Calibre 2 and a few others. So a fairly elective mix.

So what did they all think?

Well it was no surprise to find that Spice World came out the lowest overall score (2.1/10). It would be kind to say that this isn’t a great game, and got poor reviews when it was released (IGN scored in 2.0 and Gamespot 2.3). A cheap attempt at a cash in on the back of the Spice Girls success would sum it up well. Worth seaking out as a bad example though if you need one.

Hello Kitty did surprisingly well (5.3, compared to IGN 6.0, Gamespot 7.0). It’s not a bad game, although it wouldn’t win any innovation awards. It does use some well established game mechanics to do a simple job well.

Dividing opinion dramatically were Goldeneye (5.6, compared with IGN‘s score of 9.7 and Gamespot‘s 9.8) and Space Channel 5 (4.2 overall compared to IGN 9.2 and Gamespot 7.0). I loved both these when they came out, but interestingly I feel that SC5 has aged better. This is probably because it doesn’t take itself  too seriously and the simple cartoon graphics on the Dreamcast have aged better than the once awesome graphics of GE on the N64.

That and the controls! SC5 is basically a rhythm game and so uses the buttons sparingly, whereas the controls for GE are instantly compared (unfavourably) with modern FPSs. The N64 controller with its the innovative standard analogue stick seemed great at the time, but the combination of buttons and the stick to look/move/strafe now seems clunky to say the least, a point made by several of the students. I also found myself searching for the ‘crouch’ button several times when reliving the good old days.
A surprise was the way people took to Armored Core (5.5, 7.8 from IGN and 7.0 from Gamespot). To me, this game exhibits the worst features of a game that comes along late in a franchise. It seems to make huge assumptions about what the player will already know about controlling a mech or the game objectives, and whilst there are tutorials if you choose to do them, these are long and poorly structured. That was my opinion anyway.
But a number of students who had never played similar games took to it quickly, seemingly more forgiving of it than they were of Goldeneye. This could be because the graphics are so far advanced that people spend time looking at those rather than giving up after a few minutes and so get further than they might otherwise. There’s also the familiarity with PS3 controller which helped people find their way around the complex controls relatively quickly.
Maybe my rose-tinted view of Goldeneye and my inability to just pick up and play Amored Core means I’m getting old.
Did I say maybe?!



BBC Future Media open evening

Tuesday, after popping over to the LSx Open Cafe (the first time in 5 years of invitations, and well worth finally getting there), it was off to Media City in Salford for the BBC Future Media ‘open evening’.

It was a good chance to chat to some of the team who work on some really nice projects such as the new Tivo ‘connected Red Button‘ and the iPlayer apps for various platforms. We also saw some of the tech that’s being developed for multiscreen viewing and some ‘proper’ engineering for sync’ing HD signals over using standard ethernet connections. They’ve been doing a lot of work about using IP networks for everything, which will cut costs in terms of specialised distribution hardware. They were preparing for the first live trial of the their ‘halfRF‘ project that squeezes HD signals into a tiny bit of RF spectrum making wireless cameras much more viable. For the real geeks out there, there’s some more about halfRF here.

It was also good fun to play with the Xbox Kinect interface to the iPlayer.

This has been out for a while, but I hadn’t played with it before. It’s not quite ready to replace the remote yet in my opinion, but it’s a nice toy to impress folk if you want that Minority Report look. Of course, I’ll be mostly using the Tivo and the new Red Button to get to iPlayer, so I can’t see myself booting up the Xbox very often just to use the iPlayer. Maybe I should move the Xbox to a different room…

After the demos, there was a chance to attend some talks by some of the staff and developers there.

There were some really good sessions,and it was a shame that they overalapped and each one only ran once, which meant missing on some of them. I particularly enjoyed the Behaviour Driven Development from Jack Palfrey and Agile project management from Craig Pointon. Andy Wilson was also there talking about training at the BBC, including the MSc in Software Engineering & Internet Architecture that we’re working on with them, but due to clashes I missed that talk (sorry Andy).

All in all, half a day well spent. Looking forward to the next one!