Posted by Brendan Crowther on , last updated

In BBC Research & Development's North Lab, 2013 saw the start of lot of new projects as well as the end of a few, the arrival of some new faces and the departure of others. As we get the gears moving for 2014 we thought now would be a good time to reflect on the year that was. Below there's a short film highlighting some of our work over the last year and much more detail on individual projects in the rest of the post. You can find out what our colleagues in the Internet Research & Future Services (IRFS) Team got up to in this post from them and make sure to check back at the end of the week for the yearnotes from R&D's South Lab in London.


Although January is generally seen as a fresh start, for R&D's User Experience Team it actually started out with some work they’d been engaged in previously starting to catch people's imagination. The Internet of Things (or Physical Internet) is a vibrant new way of looking at connected devices and what people want to do with them. 2013 saw a massive increase in interest in the subject and the chance to collaborate with other interested practitioners. Along with increased interest came more funding opportunities for relevant research. Nesta Digital Makers was one of many initiatives looking to finance programmes which encouraged and enabled young people to create technology rather than just consume it. The UX team made sure to put in their own pitch around physical computing for kids -  BBC Toymakers.

An example of the kind of engineering kits proposed by BBC Toymakers

January also brought to an end a fruitful collaboration as we had to wish a fond farewell to visiting professor Steve Benford from the University of Nottingham. An associate of the Mixed Reality Lab with a background in research into the dynamics in live performances, Steve had been with us in our North Lab in MediaCityUK since October 2012 using his access to BBC production staff to help inform research into his theories on media consumption “trajectories”. We wish Steve well on his onward travels as part of his Dream Fellowship.


February saw the consolidation of many projects ongoing in 2012. The Augmented Video Player is a project that continued to develop over the course of 2013 and now has sufficient functionality and stability to begin production trials. The team are currently experimenting with visible metadata augmentations for a number of different genres, including natural history programmes, sport, cooking and children's.


An episode of The Blue Planet, with an augmented layer of extra zoological and physiological data 


March started off with a timely post on our blog on the state of binaural sound from Audio Research Engineer Chris Pike. BBC R&D's Audio Research Team has a strong contingent n the North Lab and is at the forefront of innovation in audio research. From helping develop the next format standards for audio to developing new production tools for handling the creation of 3D soundscapes, the Audio Research Team aim to bring the same transformative level of innovation to the BBC's audio output as technologies like HD and on-demand brought to it's video content.


April saw a very important event take place at BBC Radio Theatre in London. The Sustainability in Broadcast & Digital Media event brought together industry leaders from across broadcasting and beyond to discuss the environmental issues in producing media for modern platforms. The day was full of interesting and mind expanding talks from some of the leading thinkers in sustainable work practices. A sustainable BBC is at the forefront of Research & Development's agenda and a number of North Labbers travelled to London for the event. You can watch all the talks and panel discussions from the day in full on the BBC R&D website.

Janet West opens the Sustainability in Broadcast and Digital Media event

Talking of websites, in April we launched our new one. A platform to bring together the work undertaken across all our labs, our hope is that as we continue to populate it, wont just be the best place to find out about all the people and projects in the department but a place on the web that inspires people to think bigger and reach further.

Finally for April, members of R&D's UX team co-chaired a workshop at the CHI2013 conference in Paris. The event explored the changing face of television user experiences due to the growth in connected and/or smart TV sets. 


As we rolled into summer May saw an interesting experiment hosted in collaboration with Radio 5 Live. Using audio “objects” the experiment tried to introduce some of the feeling of a live football match into 5 Live’s coverage. The Audio Research Team were also busy co-organising a workshop on immersive audio over headphones which you can read about in this blog post from one of the organisers.0

The idea of media changing to suit consumers' preferences isn’t particularly new but BBC R&D’s work on Perceptive Media has started to flesh out the mechanics of how it might all work. In May, the Perceptive Radio took the concept a stage further, hosting a radio drama that changed depending on the listener’s location and preferences. The working model used by the project team is particularly relevant to how BBC R&D operated in 2013 - bringing in expertise from external development agencies to bolster the skills in the department. It's a practice that will be key to the department's operations in the future.

The Perceptive Radio prototype

Lastly for May, an example one of the larger projects the department is involved in came to a close. The FascinatE project is a EU wide collaboration which attempts to reimagine television production and consumption for a future of higher visual and audio definitions, more choice, and greater viewer control. The final demonstration of the technologies and editorial possibilities developed through of the project were shown off at a two day showcase at the University of Salford’s facility in MediaCityUK. A video about the project which includes interviews with the key partners can be viewed on the BBC R&D website.


On the other end of the scale from a project like FascinatE, the Connected Fob for Radio prototype was a highlight from June. The project looks at screen-less interactions, in this case a one button interface used for real-time interaction with BBC radio services. Used in conjunction with a dedicated, re-writable app the idea is that users can take these available pieces of hardware and software and then turn them to whatever task is most useful to them.

The Connected Fob for Radio prototype and its companion app

While BBC R&D is naturally very interested in new technologies and platforms like connected devices and smartphones the department is very aware of the amount of people who still mainly consume the BBC's "traditional" radio and television channels. Of course, these platforms are themselves changing all the time and this thought provoking piece by R&D Principle Technologist Andrew Cotton highlights some of the work the department is engaged with around ultra-high definition (UHD) displays.  


July brought up the BBC’s two year anniversary in MediaCityUK. There were tons of events over course of the month and in the North Lab it was no exception with staff hosting tours of our lab facilities for members of other departments and a presenting full range of demonstrations of our latest work.

The IoT team travelled to the O2 in Greenwich, to attend a 24 hour hackday for developers and makers. The theme of the weekend was to learn, build and share. Using physical computing components such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, the attending mix of developers and designers tackled a challenge set by the team from R&D to build networked, physical devices based on stories written by kids about the magical powers they wish they had. The results ranged from a platform that can lift houses to telepathic sensing to 'read the state of a human'.

A presence sensing wristband developed at

We also launched the latest of our strategic research partnerships, the UX Research Partnership. Following on from the Audio Research Partnership, the beginning of this new initiative was celebrated by a launch event that brought together BBC R&D with its six UK university partners to give a taste of the work this centre of excellence in UX research will provide over a four year period.

Lastly in July an internal R&D event gave the department an opportunity to try out some technologies it's been working on for a while now that are going to be vital to the future of the BBC. The IP Studio project looks at delivering television and radio studio production environments over IP networks, delivering cost benefits, increased flexibility and new programme making possibilities. BBC R&D is split over multiple sites with labs in Salford, Central London and West London. With research teams often spread across different labs they need fast and reliable methods of cross-site working and a quarterly R&D “all-hands” update was just the opportunity needed to deploy some of the IP Studio technology, streaming talks and presentations across all of our labs.

Engineer James Weaver demonstrates some of the time synchronisation technology utilised by the IP Studio project


August saw more opportunities to communicate R&D's work to wider audiences. The department is constantly looking for ways to surface its work (some of the best R&D done in the UK is no use if it never leaves the department) and that means getting out there and telling people about the work the department does.

Working with CBeebies Producer Tim Jokl the User Experience team in the North Lab attempted to build a picture of the media consumption habits of children and parents that could help those at the BBC involved in producing content for children to get the maximum potential out of new platforms and formats. Tim was stationed in the North Lab for a few months and expands on his time here and also the presentation of the final work in a post on the R&D blog.

The Mini Maker Faire at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) was an ideal opportunity for a small team from the North Lab top show off their most recent side project to the public. An interactive art installation, it presented the massively distributed nature of internet content servers in real time to reveal the many layers of complimentary technology that allow our connected devices to communicate. The piece was the product of a short sprint investigating some of the advanced features of HTML5 canvas technology along with IP packet processing techniques and was featured as one of the main attractions at the event.

The mobile data visualisation installation created for Makerfaire by BBC R&D


September saw the department welcome its latest batch of trainees, all of whom will spend time in both the North and South labs as part of their acclimatisation process. A mix of engineers, technologists and research scientists, they immediately set to work examining the potential of the Oculus Rift technology for creating a more immersive browsing experience for users of BBC web services. Not a bad first couple of weeks.

Adrian Woolard, head of the R&D North Lab, tries out

the prototype head tracking internet browser

The month also saw the continued maturation of the Audio Research Partnership which celebrated it's two year anniversary with a massive event in MediaCityUK, demonstrating the fruits of the research carried out so far. In more Internet of Things activity, R&D's UX team hosted a workshop at Brunel University as part of the British Computer Society’s Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Conference. 

September is traditionally IBC time for the department and this year was no different. Amongst the mad scramble across all the labs to get everything working in time for one of the broadcast industry's biggest annual events the department managed to set up a mock up of the stand that would go to IBC in the South Lab in West London. You can find out some details of specific projects and papers we took to IBC by taking a look at this post on subtitle quality from Senior R&D engineer Mike Armstrong or this round up of the projects we took with us.

BBC R&D staff man their posts at the department's stand at IBC in Amsterdam


Other than attempting to process the sheer weight of information that came out of IBC this year, October was spent by members of the Audio Research Team getting yet another large scale multi-partner research initiative going. The S3A initiative will put together research activities that will explore the possibilities around immersive 3D audio for people at home.

The department was also involved in the latest of a long line of conferences concerning UASs (Unmanned Aircraft Systems), a contentious subject that the organisation is very interested in due to (amongst other things) the cost saving benefits potentially afforded by not having to hire a helicopter and pilot every time a production wants one of those nice swoopy shots you see on Planet Earth or similar. This event also marked one of the last involvements of seasoned BBC R&Der Ant Miller who we waved off to pastures new shortly afterwards.


One of the ambitions of the BBC at MediaCityUK is to be more open to members of the public and commercial companies in the same line of work. BBC R&D is committed to working closely with the independent tech community to expand our knowledge and increase our expertise. November saw the department host an event specifically designed for an oft-underrepresented  minority in technology (i.e. women) to hold forth on the subjects they were interested in and felt were of interest to  the rest of the tech community. The resulting 300 Seconds event was hosted by BBC R&D on the 5th floor of Quay House, MediaCityUK.


R&D Technologist Becky Gregory Clark speaks at the 300 Seconds event in MediaCityUK


As the country started to wind down for Christmas there were many R&D engineers and technologists still hard at work, some in the Lab and some quite literally still out in the field. While the rest of us were putting up our Christmas decs Mark Mann was smashing golf balls around in the great outdoors trying to figure out the issues associated with triangulating the position of a golf ball for use with analytics software and CGI compositing. Other members of the department were in the distinctly warmer climes of a European Broadcasting Union workshop on the requirements for UHD digital video.

BBC R&D engineers at Wentworth Golf Club in Surrey gathering footage

for the trails to automatically detect and locate golf balls

So that was 2013 sort of from the BBC R&D North Lab's perspective. Most of the department's project teams are split across multiple sites and R&D as a whole got up to much more of course. Overall 2013 was a good year for the North Lab. Increased exposure, some excellent additions to staff and greater integration with the rest of the organisation really helped us provide the maximum benefit to the rest of the BBC from the department's work. Some excellent research and development was done over the course of the year, from small scale prototypes to large, multi-partner research initiatives. Here’s hoping for a similarly productive 2014!