Pervasive media: building a new digital world

Design dimensions developed by UWE Bristol researchers have enabled and supported growth across Bristol's creative technology sector. The initiative helped to reformulate the possibilities for interactive digital experiences - creating a range of new products and services, and underpinning the £4.8M investment in REACT, the South West Creative Economy hub.

New creative language for a new digital world

Everyday mobile digital devices, such as mobile phones and tablets, can sense features of their surroundings – such as location, orientation, movement, light and sounds. This means that programs such as games can respond not only to the user’s inputs via touchscreen or keypad, but also to where they are, what they are doing and what is going on around them. The software can provide immersive digital experiences known as ‘pervasive media’.

It is almost as if there is a whole new world that needs a new language: does the experience for the user build on their real surroundings, for example, or does it present an absorbing alternative virtual world? To what extent do the user’s actions affect what happens, or does the program present a set of scenes that run for a fixed time regardless?

Collaborations involving UWE Bristol researchers led by Professor Jon Dovey have clarified how best to articulate all this for real developers, helping them to dream up and realise new products with demonstrable commercial and cultural value.

The research team set this out in what they termed “descriptive dimensions of mobile media design”. One designer has described these as “an immensely useful checklist for anyone planning on creating any kind of interactive mobile media art with an emphasis on location and mixed realities”.

The research also resulted in an ‘experience design framework’ that provides guidance to designers on how to prototype, test and refine their product ideas in an iterative loop. It has been developed and taken forward in co-creative research relationships with software producers over the last decade.

Building collaborations

Early collaboration on these ideas with multinational company Hewlett-Packard (HP) led in 2008 to Dovey and colleagues from UWE Bristol’s Digital Cultures Research Centre co-founding the acclaimed Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, in collaboration with the University of Bristol and the Watershed Media Centre.

The Studio has brought together academic research and digital start-up companies in a creative hot house. As part of this collaboration, Calvium Ltd, a spin-out company from HP, has adopted the design framework: it is at the heart of their thriving app development and consultancy business

Between 2009 and 2011 the UWE Bristol team shared the design framework and the reformulated descriptive language through a knowledge-exchange network of creative-industry start-up companies, SMEs, cultural industry agencies and media professionals – as well as practice-based researchers.

This has helped the companies improve their sales. The managing director of one of them, a games development studio, has said that “having such direct access to an academic team has proven immensely useful to our business over the years, helping us make sense and understand the wider implications of our work in such a fast-moving industry”.

Building on all this experience, UWE Bristol leads a major initiative funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2012 to 2016. ‘Research and Enterprise for Arts and Creative Technologies’ (REACT), of which Dovey is Director, has formed partnerships with businesses in the publishing, heritage and media industries to create prototype products and services.

For instance, new games start up Splash and Ripple worked with UWE Bristol historian Professor Steve Poole to develop a new approach to delivering heritage experiences for Sydney Gardens in Bath. The company was then able to secure a major contract with the National Trust using the same technique.

This partnership “has directly resulted in many new leads,” says the Creative Director of one of these companies. “My business is now established as a new brand.”

In 2012-13 alone the partner companies were able to produce an extra £500K of business.