BBC R&D

Posted by Steve Benford, Brendan Crowther on , last updated

I’m Steve Benford, a Professor in Computer Science who is usually to be found at The University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Laboratory.

Between October last year and January this year however I have been the first Visiting Professor at BBC Research & Development. This has been part of my Dream Fellowship, a three-year mission to engage my research with the creative industries.

I’m actually one of eight Dream Fellows, funded by the EPSRC, who are exploring the boundaries between creativity and research in various fields. My personal angle is to understand how mainstream creative experiences are delivered at the coalface and to connect this back to some of my own ideas that have emerged from a series of collaborations with UK artists to create unusual and provocative interactive experiences.

It has been a stimulating four months. Being based in BBC Research and Development at the MediaCityUK campus has provided me with a platform from which to engage people across the BBC, from Knowledge and Learning to Sport, and from researchers and user experience (UX) designers to programme makers. I have also taken part in a Connected Studio event where I worked with the creative company SODA to prototype an idea for using facial expression recognition technologies to capture audience responses to TV shows; have contributed to an un-conference on the Playful Internet of Things Futures; and have visited neighbours on the Media City campus including the Imperial War Museum North and The University of Salford, where I gave a presentation on Uncomfortable Interactions as part of their As Yet Impossible series. My visit has also coincided with an internship for our Horizon Doctoral Training Centre student Edward Anstead, who has gained valuable experience of creating multiscreen television experiences that will feed into the remainder of his PhD.

Multiscreen television experiences

My main focus, however, has been on the design of multiscreen television experiences that connect televisions, personal computers, phones, tablets (and possibly other devices too) in new ways. This has emerged as one of the most exciting and deeply provoking ideas to confront the television industry in recent years, combining the need to understand and accommodate the complex ways in which viewers appropriate multiple screens for themselves, with the possibility of creating new forms of pervasive television experience (take a look at recent reports from GoogleMicrosoft and UM for background. Multiscreen TV raises major challenges for television UX designers. Not only must they tailor interfaces to an increasingly diverse array of screens that are deployed in an ever-expanding set of settings, but they also have to consider how these can be joined up as part of an integrated multiscreen experience that may potentially extend over both space and time. 

During my time at the BBC I have been exploring how the approach of ‘trajectories’ can help address these challenges. This has emerged from over ten years of collaborating with artists to create pervasive games, interactive performances, amusement rides, and installations. You can find a full description of these projects and trajectories in my book Performing Mixed Reality, while background papers, videos and examples are freely available at the Trajectorize website. In a nutshell, the aim is to encourage the design of a coherent user journey through an interactive experience by thinking in terms of three key concepts. 

Trajectories in a nutshell

The first major concept is the canonical trajectory, the designer’s intended route through an experience. This includes elements of plot and narrative, but also the ‘staging’ of the experience meaning how these are to be delivered onto different interfaces and encountered by participants in the real world. There may be multiple canonical trajectories though an experience and these are typically expressed as a combination of scripts, floor-plans, storyboards, media and code. A canonical trajectory may pass through key transitions, especially tricky or fragile moments at which the viewer’s journey runs the risk of being broken or becoming incoherent, including beginnings, endings, interface handovers, real-virtual traversals, episodes, seams (by which I mean the ‘gaps’ in network and sensor technologies that sometimes reveal themselves with nasty consequences), and the bottlenecks that can occur when many people try to access the same physical place, prop or device. 

The ways in which different canonical trajectories interweave with one another reflects the social nature of the experience, expressing moments of isolation and encounter as well as the need to manage pacing across different people.

The second major trajectory concept is the participant trajectory. This expresses a given individual’s actual journey through the experience, meaning what they actually do as opposed to what was initially planned for them. Participant trajectories can easily diverge from canonical trajectories for all manner of reasons and so designers must also plan for how to get them to reconverge again, a process that is called orchestration.

Our third and final kind of trajectory is the historic trajectory that describes how an experience is captured and recounted afterwards. Historic trajectories enable us to reflect on our experience and recount them to others at a later time. They encourage designers to think about how an experience is documented (with contributions from both the individual and the experience provider) and how this enables a personal story to be told after the event. A good example is the Automics service that enabled visitors to the Alton Towers amusement park to share and annotate personal and official (on-ride) photos and then combine them with a branded template to create souvenir photostories of their ride experiences.

In my view, historic trajectories are an essential, but often neglected, aspect of experience design. Our ability to tell rich stories of television viewing experiences is currently very constrained, limiting our abilities to reflect, learn and discuss with others, especially as television viewing becomes more socially fragmented.

Introducing trajectories to the BBC

My challenge has been to find a way to introduce the concept of trajectories to the BBC. I began by taking two existing companion apps and applying trajectories to their designs as a kind of heuristic usability inspection in order to see what issues I might be able to uncover. The first of these was Jigsaw, a prototype created as part of an exploration of intergenerational TV watching. Jigsaw allows a child to capture a screen image from a TV show on a tablet and then turn it into a jigsaw puzzle.

 

The second was the BBC Antiques Roadshow play-along app that allows viewers to guess the values of antiques as they watch the show.

Applying trajectories to these examples revealed a range of UX design issues such as how to maintain synchronisation as people play along with the TV; the unusual problem of having too much network coverage so that people can capture what is on the TV screen from a distance; and the generally challenge of supporting repeat experiences. It also revealed the difficulty of representing and annotating complex trajectories, leading me to experiment with a zoomable presentation that enables a designer to move between an overview of a trajectory and fine details such as the design of a particular transition.

The next step was a workshop that focused on ‘Designing Trajectories Through Multiscreen Learning Experiences’, attended by over twenty-five people from BBC Knowledge and Learning, Research and Development, Sport, and User Experience Design, as well as by external participants from the University and the Imperial War Museum North. Following an introduction to trajectories, we split into groups to try and design trajectories through four hypothetical television experiences that were based on following a series of national events over a summer, using a toy to interact with a TV show, relating television to a museum visit, and an intergenerational experience in which viewers pose puzzles to each other. The results were very exciting. Given the limited time available, it seemed like participants were able to engage with the core concepts and begin to sketch out trajectories, while concepts such as seams and the historic trajectory felt like they could offer genuinely new insights into experience design.  

Looking back

Reflecting on my own historic trajectory here at the BBC, I can see great potential in better connecting approaches and concepts that emerge from basic research to the design of real user experiences at the coalface. However, I can also appreciate just how difficult this is to achieve. My initial reaction is that I now need to create a more structured way of stepping through and applying trajectory concepts, backing this up with case studies and zoomable authoring tools. Indeed, a team of Nottingham and BBC authors has recently written a joint research paper (currently under scientific peer review) along these lines.

More generally, I've been struck by the openness of people at the BBC to engage me in discussing these ideas. This has left me with a great deal to think about as well as valuable contacts for exploring further developments. Moreover, Penny was also very excited to see Jenny Murray actually presenting Woman's Hour (although I was disappointed not to have bumped into Brian Cox). I would certainly recommend fellow academics to be a visitor at the BBC - it has been an extremely enjoyable and rewarding use of my time and also extremely useful to be able to associate it with an internship for one of our PhD students. In the accompanying film you can hear more reflection from me on my time at BBC Research & Development and on the trajectories workshop. 

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