The BBC has a long and enviable history of innovation. For close to a century, they have been at the forefront of the development of broadcast technology.
Ant Miller is a Senior Research Manager in the BBC R&D Department, and a Geek Dilettante in his spare time. Ant was a bookseller when I first came across him, working for Waterstones in Brighton, running the computing section during the web’s first boom. It was great to find a computing book buyer who knew what the books were about: we’d have coffee and natter about the world of technology, Man City (his team), Huddersfield Town (mine) and where Lego Mindstorms fitted into the grand scheme of things. Next time I came across him, I was helping my colleague Josette Garcia run the Make magazine stall at Hack Day. Ant had joined the BBC and was there in an official capacity, and it was lovely to see him thrive under their auspices. The following year he was back at Mashed, building and launching a rocket from Alexandra Palace’s exhalted grounds, one of the highlights of a highlit day. Since then, he has been behind the BBC’s significant presence at Maker Faire, among a million other things.
Ant embodies all that’s good about the BBC – imagination applied with a sense of fun and a commitment to quality, an openness intent on reaching out to people and organisations outwith the BBC, and an instinct for the common good. He blogs for work on the Research and Development subsite, and blogs for himself at Reithian:
What do you do for the BBC?
I work in the R&D dept, specifically inside our Technology Transfer Team. BBC R&D has about 160 engineers, scientists and other research staff based in labs in West and Central London and Manchester working on a wide range of projects across broadcast tech. We work on everything from the latest cameras to digital media management systems and advanced transmission technologies to next generation user interfaces, plus most of everything in between.
Our Technology Transfer Team is responsible for getting the technologies the engineers come up with out of the lab and into the studio, the outside broadcast or the living room – wherever they need to get to in order to deliver value to the BBC and our audiences. My role inside that team is to work on all the communications channels we use to get our ideas out to the wider world, and to get the information we need into the dept about the challenges and problems in technology that the rest of the BBC need us to solve.
Are there specific projects you are working on right now?
I’ve got a few internal and external events in the pipeline – events are a key part of the external communications role, and these can be anything from a small hackday to help a team develop a prototype, to a large international conference, where we might have multiple demonstrators on stands, papers in conference and, if we’re lucky, a couple of keynote speakers.
I’m also looking at the blog and website content – it’s an ongoing task to ensure we keep up a steady flow of interesting relevant content for our readers and the key people we want to reach. Part of that is making films for the blog and website, which is great for focussing our efforts, but is pretty time consuming too. We’re very lucky to work with a great producer who used to work on Tomorrow’s World and the BBC Micro project.
Why is R&D important to the BBC?
It’s how we stay relevant, or part of how we do it anyway. The public service broadcast infrastructure, whether it’s over the airwaves with ‘sticks on hills’ or over IP, is a massive system – in order to change it, to keep it relevant and to stay up with advances that come in other areas of media technology, the BBC needs to be almost precognitive in how it prepares for the future. It’s like an oil tanker, or more like a fleet of oil tankers, that has to see far ahead in order to turn in time and avoid nasty collisions. R&D is like a scout ahead of the fleet, but still part of it – we see further ahead, and sometimes we actually have to make the channel ourselves (hmm, that metaphor paid off ok, in the end!).
From the point of view of a technologist, what are the 5 most vital innovations to come out of the BBC during its long history?
Vital is a tough term, but the plethora of technical standards that BBC R&D has helped define and in many cases led over the years have to qualify. I’m thinking of things like Nicam stereo, MXF digital file formats and the DVB-T2 broadcasting standard that’s allowing us to deliver HD television.
It’s impossible to over-emphasise how critical open standards are to the broadcast industry. As I mentioned before the industry as a whole is big, and in the UK the BBC makes up a very large part of the industry. If you were to put all of that industry into wholly proprietary technical platforms, with no interoperability through standards, then a number of problems could arise. With standards-based technologies, the market can allow innovation and competition, keeping costs to a reasonable level. They allow confident investment in platforms, by both ourselves and in industrial partners. By taking these standards to the international level, which we always try to do, we allow the UK industry to reap the benefits of the global media technology market, and through the wonders of international standards-based broadcast, we can all enjoy the technological and artistic marvel that is The Eurovision Song Contest!
Any others? Well once upon a time, BBC R&D went a bit further and actually specified and designed bits of kit – microphones, mixing desks etc. Many of these are quite iconic- BBC Heritage maintain a pretty good collection of them. One product that has gone on to great success is the LS 3/5a speaker, a lovely little reference speaker designed for applications where a compact speaker was needed. Rogers have just produced the 50,000th pair, a very fine lacquered set, and they’ve very kindly presented them to us. We’re just deciding where best to show them off!
How has the BBC’s innovation benefited other media companies beside the BBC?
We do take very seriously our role of being the R&D lab not just for the BBC, but to an extent for the whole of the UK media industry. Our standards work is useful, essential even for companies across the country. We’ve always worked extensively in partnership with other companies, and with universities and research institutions, but more than ever the really big projects need partnerships to work.
Some examples are pretty clear – the work we did to develop the digital television standards allowed the market to focus on delivering on the products that the audience was going to need, so when the transmission of DVB came through, there were set-top boxes ready to go. This is actually happening again right now as the HD digital television service rolls out – in order to deliver HD pictures our engineers have had to develop fundamental transmission technologies, and the reference equipment to demonstrate and test these breakthroughs.
One of my colleagues has also likened us to being a bit like a teaching hospital – it’s a nice comparison. All across the BBC there are young people starting out in their media careers, learning the trade and building their experience. In R&D we do have a relatively large pool of trainee engineers and scientists – typically a dozen or more. Now we hope that our investment in these young researchers will pay off in their long-term contribution back into the department’s work, but some will go on to be technology leadership across the rest of the BBC, or to our partner technology companies, or other broadcasters, or elsewhere in the UK technology industry. And that’s absolutely fine, because we hope we treated them well, if not lavished riches upon them, and given them a passion for the technology, and real respect for the public service ethos, and that will in the best Reithian traditions, make us all better off.
It’s a long way from a R&D prototype to a industry-ready device or service. What has working in R&D taught you about industrial robustness?
It’s hard, and it’s something that you avoid thinking about early on at your peril. Much of the work we do in R&D is long-lead stuff, years out into the future, and we even do some pretty basic fundamental research, especially in the radio frequency domain, and increasingly in perceptual psychology type science. However, before long we usually start building stuff, and whether it’s software or hardware, there’s always a tension between code or kit that’s good to hack around with, to experiment on and to be really creative with, and building something that can eventually be developed into a stable mature platform.
In the hardware domain this kind of solid engineering practice is in our blood. When it comes to software though, and especially when we look at widely distributed systems and services that have to be extremely scalable in the final deployment, it’s clear that we can develop better processes and practices, and that’s a key development process that we’re going through right now.
It’s about a year since your department moved from Kingswood Warren to White City. Now the dust has settled, was it a good move? What are the upsides? What are the downsides?
It has been a massive project to relocate the department and the resources from one out-of-town location to two separate inner city facilities, and at the same time integrate a third existing lab into the department, but it’s pretty much done now for London, and in Manchester the eventual home of the team there is rapidly taking shape. No-one would pretend that the move didn’t impact on this year’s work, but we’re already feeling the benefit of being in White City nestled right in with the rest of the BBC. Kingswood was lovely to look at, and had its benefits, but we’re an essential part of how the BBC addresses a rapidly developing future, and it’s clear that a long distance relationship just wasn’t going to achieve that anymore. So, now we’re hosting events pretty much every week where colleagues from all sorts of technical and even editorial areas are meeting with our engineers and research scientists. We’ve managed to keep a significant element of independence too – R&D is meant to try things, and to occasionally break them too, so we have our own very high capacity network, our own IT support too. Centre House is slowly but surely becoming home, and we’re making our mark on W12 as a whole.
I think we’ll understand what the impact was this year when we don’t do it next year- not having three months dominated by parking projects, packing, sorting, relocating and commissioning new facilities should see us produce significantly more public results in 2011, but quite what the difference will be I don’t think any of us are really certain.
I was sorry to hear of the demise of BBC Backstage. Why did it shut down? What did it achieve in the 6 years it has been around? Any plans to keep the Backstage community together?
Backstage has run it’s course, and overall done what it set out to do in making Open Data, Linked Data, and open collaboration a key part of the way that business as usual gets done at the BBC. It can be argued that that is a journey still to be completed (personally I doubt it will ever end) but the idea with finishing up Backstage is that it took the crusade as far as it could. Now we have the idea planted and growing in the main business, and there we need to foster it and make it grow. So long as we run Backstage then it’s always going to be Backstage’s thing to do, and now it needs to be the thing that everyone does.
Of course Backstage was much more than that – the events, the community all made a great contribution to the BBC and the wider culture, and we hope that this engagement will continue. My role as external comms for R&D means I’m maintaining our engagement with the community, but I’m also working hard to try and build a bigger ‘metacommunity’ of developers and designers that pulls in more than the BBC. The potential of these communities seems to run to a power law of the resources available – if we can pull off this bigger thing (and I really want it to work) then the result could be pretty spectacular. It’s all to play for now, but a lot of us are really excited about what we might be able to launch in 2011.
You’ll still have the feeds and hopefully many more, all served out of a new site that’s in development.
How did you get involved in Maker Faire?
I have no idea. Honestly, no recollection at all. Glad I did though, it’s amazing.
The Surround Video you demonstrated at Maker Faire 2010 was stunning. Have you been able to develop it further? What future uses do you see for it?
Ooh, come to MF 2011, we’ll blow your mind! I’m not going to spoil it, but if anyone came along to the Making Connections festival of Radio in Belfast in September may have seen a little demo of part of this amazing thing that’s being built. We’ll have a full blown demo at the Centre for Life in March 2011, and then we’ll be able to announce it’s deployment, and that’s cool too. This is all a demonstrator of course, and seeing as we’re still working on it there’s an element of risk, but if it works, well, you’ll see.
Will you be attending Maker Faire in 2011, and, if so, what plans do you have for it?
Me, personally? No, I won’t, sadly. I’m running our participation in the Big Bang Science fair which clashes. I’ve done MF two years in a row, so we felt we really needed to help out with Big Bang this year. The team in the North Lab will be coming along though, and in addition to the ‘Surround Video plus’ demo they should have a typical range of the homebrew hackery and weirdly futuristic media technology that we hope is becoming our hallmark.
How did you get into technology?
Not sure really – I loved Lego since I can remember, and especially technical. As a kid I worked Saturdays in my Dad’s garage, doing MOTs, changing oil, doing brakes, eventually stripping down engines (he sold Lancias- lot’s of stripping down engines! Especially the flat four in the Gamma Coupe as that used to like to chew on it’s own valves). I’ve never really got deeply into coding though – just at a very shallow naïve level I can tinker with a script.
In my mid-twenties though, when I’d more or less given up on doing much technical and was running a law firm’s archives, some friends started an AI course at Sussex, and long summer evening chats when they came back home made me realise that there was a change coming, with technology about to surge into people’s lives with a potential impact far outstripping what we are generally equipped to deal with in our day-to-day lives.
So, I gave up the day job, signed onto a college course, and scraped my way into University by basically hassling the admissions tutor into letting me in. It was brilliant – hard work, and because I’d tried and failed a degree once already I got no grant, but perhaps that helped. I worked almost full-time, studied hard, hardly went out at all. The curriculum I treated as a scaffold, a launch pad to jump into a world of mindbending ideas.
I still can’t believe how indulgent the faculty of COGS at Sussex were – I was just a madly enthusiastic undergrad, barging into all sorts of tutorials, asking weird questions, getting weirder answers. Last week I had to throw out all my notes – sort of gutted, they’d gone moldy under the stairs, but I hadn’t looked at them for five years. That really shows the true value of that sort of course – it’s not what you learn, it’s how you learn. Learn to love ideas, and the people who have ideas, and to explore them with gusto and excitement.
Honestly, I don’t even know if I *am* into technology – I’m into ideas. There just happen to be a lot of interesting ideas about technology now!
How did you get involved with the BBC?
An ex-boss from my first job after university was working here, and called me in to do some casual work to help out the archives on some business change/ technology projects. It was pretty unexpected, but probably a good introduction to the structures and processes that make the BBC work, in the shadows, chugging away. It also exposed me to the massive challenges to getting an entity the size and shape of the BBC to take best advantage of tech – we are nobody’s ideal customer, nobody’s typical user, and the mismatch with expectations from vendors can be vast!
When we met you were a student in Brighton, funding yourself as the computing book buyer at Waterstone’s. What did this teach you about technology?
Sometimes I think it might be nice to get back into this business, but the way the big chains have aggregated and centralised their functions seems to have taken the fun out of the game a bit, and the online retail competition makes the risk so much higher.
Don’t want to big you up to much, but I think O’Reilly contribute to the community and the industry more than many. It’s essential when bookshops are squeezed and homogenised, when the online retailers are paring to the bone and giving almost nothing back to the public, that publishers like yourself take the time and effort to make the conversations work. It’s heartening to see O’Reilly and others recognising the responsibility of the publishing trade to be the breeding ground for ideas.
Ten years ago, you told me that Lego Mindstorms would make a fantastic teaching tool to get kids into programming. Has Mindstorms been trumped by the Arduino these days in that respect? Could it still be used to teach kids to code?
I still think Mindstorms has a huge role to play in getting engagement in real-world computing into education, but it’s going to take more than tools.
There’s a cultural change needed to make the most of this – we need to get over this idea of the two cultures that has been so fundamental to the way the education system has worked in the UK for many years. Technology, practical knowledge, industriousness, these are not the preserve of an uncreative, utilitarian group within society – these are the marks of a true and full citizen, a member of society, a full member who makes that society better by ideas and things. Somehow the US and Germany, and I think even France have a greater understanding of the nobility of fabrication, true making, than we have. People like James Dyson and Tim Berners-Lee are somehow exotic, weird outliers in our culture. I’ve got masses of time for Christopher Hitchens and A C Grayling, but there’s no way I’d put a thinker and artist above a maker, an engineer, a designer or scientist. All of these people explore ideas and build a better world, and we have to recognise that PPE or Classics degree confers no higher cachet than an MEng or BSc.
Wow, big rant, anyway, yes Mindstorms is/are good, but something like Arduino or mbed is great too, an extension that is valuable because it’s less toy like, but still very accessible. It makes you realise this is a serious sensible way to engage with reality, it enforces the concept that ‘creative idea plus embodied rules set equals reality YOU CAN CHANGE’. That is the core idea of programming, and to an extent engineering and applied science (though the object there is to figure out what that rules set is!). The point is not that these tools teach programming, useful though that is. They do the most valuable thing it is possible for education to do, they teach you about your place in the world and your capability to change that place and that world.