Mashing up the physical and digital worlds for culture and learning

Back at the start of the month Kirsten went along to the BBC Connected event at Facebook. BBC Connected is a series of events based around different parts of the BBC - the idea is to get external companies (and internal people from the Beeb) to respond to specific briefs and pitch ideas, some of which will then get taken forward, possibly to prototype.

October’s Connected Studio brief came from the User Experience and Design (UX&D) part of the BBC and was all about audience engagement. Working with Steve Benford from Nottingham Uni’s Mixed Reality Lab (currently on secondment to the BBC) Kirsten pitched an idea involving facial recognition technology, and we were delighted when we found out that we were one of the six teams invited to take the idea forward at a two-day build studio in Media City, Salford.

So, we put a team together: three guys from the Mixed Reality lab (Steve, Michel and Edward) plus Jons and Kirsten and spent two full on days refining the idea from the pitch and building a working prototype for a second pitch at the end of the second day.

Our idea was all about connecting with the audience in a new way - using facial recognition software to capture facial expressions and then visualise this data in creative ways. Michel Valstar, Nottingham’s expert in facial analysis software made a simple application that detected like and dislike (in response to smiles and frowns) and Jons created a visualisation of the ‘face of the nation’: a composite image of hundreds of face, which reacts to changes in audience mood by changing colour. Meanwhile the rest of us worked furiously on our presentation and tried not to drink too much caffeine. On the first afternoon we put our idea to an invited group of audience members and held our breath while they thought about it. One person thought he probably wouldn’t use it, but the others were very enthusiastic, suggesting it would be a fun way of finding out how other people had reacted to popular shows.

On the evening of the first day there was a Connected Studios Social, with eight lightning talks from participants and invited guests. Steve talking about utilising discomfort in design (specifically in relation to roller coasters) and a magician told us all about the importance of ‘attention management’ and how magician’s techniques are equally applicable to sportsmen and women.

We were the penultimate team to pitch on the Wednesday, and were impressed with the competition. The judges responded well to our idea, although one thought it was quite ‘out there’. We discussed some of the privacy issues and real-world deployment issues around the idea, and how we would respond to these if we went forward to prototype it. Afterwards we all collapsed with a beer and agreed it had been a great - if tiring - experience. We’ll find out in a few weeks if our idea is too ‘out there’ for the Beeb, but we had a damn good time and made some very useful contacts. There are a number of other Connected Studios coming up in 2013, and we can thoroughly recommend the experience to anyone who’s thinking of attending one.