I have been living and working as an interactive multimedia software engineer in Bristol for 20 years and worked for At-Bristol for 16 years – starting two years before the Millennium Commission funded visitor attraction first opened in the year 2000. During that time I worked for the IT and Exhibitions teams for both the current At-Bristol Science Centre and the former IMAX Theatre and Wildscreen-At-Bristol interactive wildlife exhibition that closed in 2007. I helped to develop the IT infrastructure for the exhibitions and have created over 100 interactive exhibits and experiences, hosted either in the permanent exhibitions, in touring exhibitions or online. Before that I worked at digital design agencies in Bristol and Brussels developing interactive software, websites and kiosks for corporate clients on PC and Mac and various other formats including CD-ROM, CD-i, Portfolio Photo-CD and diskette.
My role with At-Bristol involved identifying the hardware and software solutions required for developing new exhibits, prototyping and evaluating exhibit software, designing and developing graphical user interfaces, and integrating the software with hardware devices, databases and the network. Once the software was installed in the exhibition I spent time evaluating visitor interaction, updating content, fixing any software or interactivity issues and generally keeping the software up and running during the lifetime of the exhibit.
Exhibitions and exhibits
The following list indicates the number of exhibits I developed for some different At-Bristol exhibitions.
Our World : Earth sciences exhibition funded by the SITA Trust (8 exhibits)
All About Us : Human biology exhibition funded by the Wellcome Trust (20 exhibits)
Inside DNA : Touring human biology exhibition funded by the Wellcome Trust (15 exhibits)
Puzzlemania : Maths website funded by Clerical Medical (15 interactives)
LoveSport : Sports themed touring exhibition (3 exhibits – 11 screens)
The Forces that made I. K. Brunel : Exhibition celebrating the 200th anniversary of Brunel’s birth (2 exhibits)
Great Apes : Touring exhibition concerning the family of 5 great apes (2 exhibits)
News and Views : Interactive opinion gathering and information display software (33 screens)
Video Servers : Interactive video software for Explore and Wildwalk (33 PCs, approx 100 screens)
Electric December : Created At-Bristol’s contributions to Bristol’s digital advent calendar from 1999 to 2006 (8 windows)
People and the Planet : Exhibits for the short-lived refurbishment to the final gallery in Wildwalk. (4 exhibits)
Software and tools
Most of the above exhibits were created using a mix of Visual Basic, Director and Flash, though I have more recently been working with C# and C++ with Open Frameworks. In days gone by I’ve also dabbled with Java, Pascal, Modula-2, Fortran, Lisp and Miranda.
Communications – TCP/IP, HTTP, FTP and other protocols
All of the PCs in the At-Bristol exhibition are networked and from the beginning they all communicated across the network to various external servers. A number of exhibits in Explore-At-Bristol were fitted with barcode readers to allow visitors to store information about themselves over the network using the barcode on their ticket. It wasn’t until the launch of All About Us in 2011 that this was extended to allowing visitors to upload data and media such as video and audio to a personal account on the Explore More website. Many of the exhibits I developed for All About Us and Our World have this facility, with code written to upload files via HTTP.
Various exhibits also needed to integrate with a diverse range of hardware devices via serial or USB connections. The list includes force plates, LED matrix displays, a CO2 sensor, heart rate monitor, arduinos and barcode readers.
These techniques were also useful for business systems. The At-Bristol exhibitions were both controlled by a networked “Show Control” software application that allowed registered users to turn the exhibitions on or off, or address particular zones or lighting tracks. And when the exhibitions first opened in 2000 the tickets were printed and the sales data was collated using a software application that I had written.
Lights, Cameras, Action
Many exhibits across both exhibitions used various kinds of cameras, including Prosilica high speed cameras, a FLIR Infra-Red camera, and Axis or Logitech Webcams. Different cameras are connected to the exhibit PC via the network, USB, and composite or S-video capture cards, and the video streams are accessed via a variety of bespoke software interfaces. Some exhibits display video in real time, and record sequences to then play back, either in slow motion or in time lapse format, and allow visitors to upload their own video to their own online At-Bristol Explore More account.
I also created a touchscreen exhibit for At-Bristol’s popular Animate-It exhibition that features characters and models from Aardman Animations. A lighting rig above an impressive section of setwork from a Wallace and Gromit film can be controlled by software through a Flash interface, with a camera showing a live view.
The Wildwalk-At-Bristol exhibition was termed an “Electronic Zoo”, telling the story of Life on Earth. Live animals in tanks were complemented by video screens, projections and interactive displays that showed footage of creatures in their natural habitat, exhibiting behaviours which would not be seen on animals in captivity. Some films were synchronised to a soundtrack and some could be selected by visitors using touchpads or other controllers. I created the control software which was installed on 30 PCs serving around 100 screens.
The following exhibits are examples of projects where I was the lead software developer; designing the user interaction and screens, collaborating with the rest of the exhibitions design team to develop the content, prototyping and evaluating the software, installing within the exhibition and upgrading where necessary over the life cycle of the exhibit.
Weather Forecast (2012)
This exhibit allows visitors to present a weather forecast on camera and save the video to their own online Explore More account. This was achieved by developing a Visual Basic application displayed over three monitors; a touch screen control monitor, widescreen video display monitor and an autocue monitor to display suggested lines of speech to accompany the forecast. The Weather forecast background video was kindly supplied by the Met Office. The single PC was fitted with video capture and output cards, with a professional video camera and chromakey box which allowed the visitor to be superimposed in front of the forecast footage.
Key skills :
- Live video capture
- Video compression and playback
- Internet upload
Little Rotters / Little Growers (2012)
This pair of exhibits, both written in Director with some Flash elements, give an intuitive interface to a timelapse image grabber, which allows visitors to select sequences and run through at their own speed them using a “spin browser” wheel and a pair of buttons, interfaced to the PC via an arduino. The Logitech cameras point at either rotting food or growing plants.
- Live video with storage of time-lapse images
- Rapid display of images from multiple sequences
- Intuitive interface via spin browser or touch screen
First Impressions (2013)
This exhibit was supported by the Centre for Appearance Research at UWE who commissioned At-Bristol to build an exhibit that would make their research more accessible to the public. The visitor is presented on screen with four faces and a statement made by one of the people displayed, who have been asked to describe something unusual about themselves. The challenge is to match the statement to the face; are first impressions correct or misleading?
The exhibit features a bank of five cameras which can either display live images of the visitor or capture simultaneous still images that can be displayed as a mini “time-slice”. Any visitor can then upload their images to their Explore More online profile, along with a statement they type in on screen. After logging in to their profile they can choose to submit their photo and statement to be included in the exhibit within the At-Bristol Science Centre, so that other people playing the game can see it.
The exhibit was created in Visual Basic with data stored in a MS SQL Server database, with various subtle rules to select which photos are presented for each round, and analysis of how previous visitors voted. Video is streamed and images are captured using Axis Webcams, while the images and data are uploaded and downloaded via HTTP.
Key skills :
- Live streaming from five cameras via http
- Data storage in SQL database
- Internet data upload and download
Before I concentrated on exhibition software design, I was part of the At-Bristol IT department with a remit which included updating the At-Bristol website and other associated sites, including online versions of specific exhibits and exhibitions within the Science Centre.
This site tied in with At-Bristol’s original brain and body exhibition of the same name, and was awarded a Yahoo “Top Ten Find of the Year” back in 2004. The site features a number of interactive elements which I worked on, including ASP quizzes and votes, and Shockwave games.
Funded by Allied Domecq, I created a stand-alone exhibit within At-Bristol as well as this accompanying website, on which I led the design and construction. The website features Shockwave versions of some of the games from the exhibit.
This website accompanied Puzzlemania, a maths-themed exhibition supported by Clerical Medical. I created 15 interactive puzzles for the website in Flash and Shockwave, including a version of the 8 Queens on a Chessboard puzzle, Towers of Hanoi, and Travelling Salesman problem, along with an online programmable Pianola.
Electric December, a project run by Bristol’s Watershed Arts Centre, is an annual online advent calendar featuring work from local businesses and young people. I was involved with creating At-Bristol’s contributions for the first 8 years of the calendar. I used a mixture of Shockwave, Flash and HTML to create both stand-alone applications and interfaces to video, audio and animation content created by young visitors at media workshops run by the At-Bristol learning team.
As well as creating around 15 exhibits for a national touring exhibition, Inside DNA, I also made an online Flash game to provide an interactive experience of the work of a genetic counsellor. Search a family tree and decide which members of the family are at the highest risk of being affected by an inherited genetic condition.
I’m currently seeking further employment, potentially in the exhibit software design sector, in a more general software design industry, or even as something completely different. I’m open to offers of either full time, part time or contract work, preferably within the neighbourhood of Bristol. If you have any suggestions, please get in touch.
Mailto : gavin[at]preinclusion.com