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pete-smith.jpgTech Digest eBook Self Publishing Season - Pete Smith Q&A

Pete Smith, native of Brixton in South London, worked for nearly ten years with charity Save The Children. His book 'Project Management: All You Need Is Love' details that period of his life and his time in the commercial world as a Project Manager, describing his travels around everywhere from Peru to Angola, from Ethiopia to Vietnam. Pete shares his experiences self publishing the book through the Kindle Direct Publishing platform in this Q&A.

What originally drew you towards the self-publishing route and have you any experience with major print publishers before finding success through Kindle?

My book Project Management: All You Need Is Love wasn't finding a road to publication within the traditional industry, despite considerable help from The Literary Consultancy, who opened the 'magic door' into the literary agent world for me so that my book wasn't gathering dust on the slush pile. The reason given for rejection was always the same, not 'Your book isn't good enough' which any writer has to be prepared to deal with, but 'Your book doesn't fit'.

'Doesn't fit to what?' I screamed a few dozen times. Preconceived ideas of what a book should be; this book is a memoir, that book is a business book; this book is filed under humour. I had written a book that was a little of all those things and it was being refused publication because it didn't fit a straightjacket. Self-publishing was the best way forward.

What do you consider the main benefit of Kindle Direct Publishing?

It enables you to publish, it is technical ridiculously easy, and the basic royalty split is much more reasonable that in the traditional world.

Are there any limitations to Kindle Direct Publishing and How would you like to see the Kindle Direct Publishing process improve or evolve in the future?

In terms of getting a traditional text based book or novel published, I'd say there are no obvious limitations. But going forward I do think technology will change the reading experience.

Short term we could see a lot more use of hyperlinks as 'better than footnotes', but in the near future I think the obvious area for development will be Voice. Perhaps a mixture of reading and listening that you, the reader, controlled. Perhaps dialogue in a voice/accent suggested by the author that you could override. Somehow you need to retain or ideally expand the balance between the author's imagination and the reader's interpretation.

Further ahead, more of a multi-media experience. So if you're describing something in an African rainforest, let's see one with just a flick of the hand. And not just a still picture.

What challenges face those looking to self-publish their first eBook?

There are two primary differences. Firstly you are responsible for the production process. The technical side of that is extremely straightforward with Kindle Direct Publishing, but you have to get the cover design right, and you have to get the content to a professional level of proofing. That is a genuine challenge without throwing money at it.

Secondly you are responsible for marketing. Perhaps this area isn't quite as different as in the traditional model where you still would have to do much of it yourself anyway. But just putting your book on Kindle Direct Publishing will sell zero copies. Social media, email, web sites, blogs, talk-radio, trade press, book have to do it all yourself and it takes time. Everything works but has tiny results; but you try to get all the tiny results to add up and hope that the trickle develops.

Can a successful author make a living solely through Kindle self-publishing?

Well there are some who are, so the obvious answer is yes, although they are a tiny minority. I think for a much larger group of writers it will represent one income stream, and you will need others. Some of those may well be related to Kindle Direct Publishing. Marketing is not simply a cost but opens up other doors too; speaking engagements, advice columns, new opportunities.

Is your eBook also in print? If so, how did the process of getting the book in print compare to your experiences with Kindle self publishing?

I use Amazon Createspace for printed books. I like the system and approach as much as Kindle Direct Publishing, but it is a step up in terms of technical difficulty as you are responsible for the look and feel of your book, which you aren't really with a Kindle as the device handles it.

Examples of challenges include font selection (find a true type, serif font that you like and then figure out how to pass that with your book to Createspace), kerning and orphaning - terms you are unlikely to be familiar with as a new writer but in which you will need to develop at least a basic competence.

It isn't rocket science but it isn't straightforward either. If you can Google around, read a few 'how to' blogs and deduce which ones are worth following then you are well on your way.

Do you see a future where brick-and-mortar book stores are replaced altogether with digital eBook stores?

With a very few exceptions such as mathematical and scientific textbooks in specialist university stores, I suspect the answer to that question is 'yes'. The cost model of b-and-m with printing costs, plus the cost of stock, together with the cost of a physical location is simply too unattractive. The love of physical books is a generational issue; I fell in love with paper books as a child and that has stayed with me and won't go. So, as well as both having Kindles, my wife Sarah and I have rooms stacked from floor to ceiling with paper books. But children today will learn to read on eBooks and stay with eBooks their whole life. They might become nostalgic about the eBook reader they learnt on, which doubtless by the time they are 40 will seem hopelessly quaint and old-fashioned, but they won't love physical books as I do.

Do you feel Kindle Direct Publishing is affecting the relationship between authors and traditional publishers?

Inevitably the eBook revolution led by the Amazon Kindle is changing the industry. At the most transparent, anyone can see that you can go on to Kindle Direct Publishing and publish your eBook under a very few conditions, and keep 70% of the royalties. That is quite unheard of in the traditional world. If you are being offered 60% less, you are bound to ask 'what exactly do you do for the money?' in a way which I don't think many authors did historically; they were so grateful to get any deal. And if you break that 60% down into production (author support, drafting, copyediting, cover design etc) and marketing, there are still some fairly large questions out there.

There are some that still feel self-published eBooks are not of the same literary quality as those published by major publishing houses. How would you respond to those remarks?

I'd break that into two - technical and literary quality. In terms of technical quality, the basic process of copyediting is too often skipped especially at the lower end of the eBook market. You can see why because with a sale price of 99p or less, investing well over £1,000 is going to be problematic for some authors. I expect to see an alternative model evolve in the flexible freelance copyediting market where some editors offer a proof service on a declining royalty split basis.

In terms of literary quality, I think it is true that eBooks enable a wider range of writing to be published, and that is broadly a good thing. Some of that work will have great merit, other parts rather less. Critics and the public can decide which is which with more choice than they had in the past.

Would you ever go back down the traditional publishing route?

Never say never. The traditional publishing industry will evolve; it has to in order to survive. Personally I look at music and films, and see how those industries have both successfully adopted a 'label' approach rather than the mega studios in the face of comparable challenges. If you go to see a 'Working Title' movie you have a fair idea what to expect before the opening scene. The same with record labels; they each have a 'sound'. I can see benefits to promotion being marketed under the right banner. But the publishing label would need to be a lot leaner and smarter, more agile and 'in tune' than the publishing industry today. That's just one model and maybe there are other approaches, but we are too new into ePublishing to think all the answers are here already.

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Claire L Brown.jpgTech Digest eBook Self Publishing Season - Claire L Brown Q&A

Sunderland-born Claire L Brown is a BA Hons Graduate in Media with American History from Sunderland University. After attending Western Washington State University and spending several years working for the Fire and Rescue service in her native North East Claire now writes fantasy and thriller novels, with her first eBook 'Draco; Homecoming' releasing in December 2013.

What originally drew you towards the self-publishing route?

I lost my father in 2011 after a long illness and it changed a lot of things for me.  I took a look at my life and decided it was time to start really working on what I wanted to do because I don't want to have any regrets. 

I had previously tried traditional publishing roots but these weren't working for me so I wanted to find a way that suited my needs.   That's when I saw the link on Amazon to Kindle Direct Publishing, reading the site made me think this was a great route for me to take. 

I've used the web since early 2000 to get feedback on my writing as I worked on my style and worked out the genres I work best in.  I would use writers groups and websites to circulate my work for free and get feedback from other writers and readers.  I always thought this was one of the best ways to go as you got more in depth feedback from your audience directly. 

As the web has grown in terms of social media and blogging it's become easier to access your audience and promote your work if you have the time and the drive to do it. 
Had you any experience with major print publishers before finding success through Kindle?

I have applied to publishing houses across the UK and US a number of times with different works over a number of years. 

This method has traditionally been the only way in to the industry, but to me it relies a great deal on luck, you have to find the right agent or publisher who represents similar material to your, who lists are open to taking on new material and who likes your work.  Getting all these four elements in one go is extremely hard.  Sometimes the knock backs can be disheartening but if you strongly believe that this is what you want to do, you take on board any feedback and move on. 

Taking the self-publishing route allows you more control over your work and its marketing. You're going directly to the audience and giving them the opportunity to decide whether they want to read your work, if they choose to buy or download after reading a sample that's all the affirmation you need instead of relying on one person who gets bombarded with thousands of manuscripts to choose from. 
What do you consider the main benefit of Kindle Direct Publishing?

I find Kindle Direct Publishing has opened up the world of publishing to me. I'm in control of my work, how it looks, how's it's marketed and it offers me the feedback from readers that you wouldn't usually get through traditional routes 

My connection with the readers is also well established through the author's page so they can find out about me, about what projects are coming up and can even follow me on Twitter if they want to.  It makes me accessible to them and them to me which creates a great marketing opportunity and a great way to get feedback.  The author doesn't have to be anonymous if someone likes my work they can tell me directly and if they don't they can tell me what they don't like which in turn assists me in producing better work. 

It also allows me to make my novels available worldwide if I choose so my potential isn't limited to a locally based audience. 
Are there any limitations to Kindle Direct Publishing?

I don't think of them as limitations, I think it's more about the learning curve.  With this being a new way of publishing you are bound to come across hurdles in the first instance as you would with anything new.  It takes time to understand the system and how to use it. 

I think as more writers start self-publishing the more advice will be out there and the more the system will improve over time.  As a new writer coming in to using the Kindle Direct Publishing programme it's about learning how to use it to your own best advantage, that might take a while but you can still have your work out there as you are learning.
What challenges face those looking to self-publish their first eBook?

It's all about firsts which can be very daunting.  You have to be your own editor, publisher and marketing.  You have to prepare well, make sure your book is ready and is the best it can be.  Unless you employ an editor you're on your own in getting the words and the layout right.  You have to have your synopsis ready for the site and you have to remember this is what will sell your book, you need to consider the artwork as this will be a major attraction to the reader, if you're not artistic you need to find a cover artist.  

I found that using the advice on the Kindle Direct Publishing site and also using writing support groups steered me in the right direction.  Also, I was able to find a great cover artist through Twitter and even though we are in completely different countries we were able to work really well together on developing a cover that was suitable for Kindle. 

The biggest challenge for me is marketing yourself you have to be the promoter of your own work, if you want to be a success you can't just sit back and expect people to find your work you have to get out there and find ways to tell them it's there. 
Can a successful author make a living solely through Kindle self-publishing?

As a new writer probably not in the initial stages, it takes a while to promote your book and start building a reputation.  If you plan to publish more than one book then in time if you can build up a strong following you could possibly earn enough from Kindle sales solely.

For myself right now, I still work a 'day' job to support myself as I build my reputation and sales through marketing using social media but I hope in the future this will change so that I can work solely on my writing career. 
Is your eBook also in print? If so, how did the process of getting the book in print compare to your experiences with Kindle self-publishing?

Currently due to the cost of publishing a hard copy book I haven't gone down that route yet but hopefully in the future I will be able to have both an eBook and a hard copy available.
I know other writers who've gone down both roots, and have sought funding through sites like Createspace which has worked really well for them and it's definitely something to consider in the future.

As this is my first novel release I've been really happy with the Kindle process it was a lot easier than I first imagined and there is a lot of advice and support out there if you need it. 
Do you see a future where brick-and-mortar book stores are replaced altogether with digital eBook stores?

I think the way in which people purchase goods in general is changing and this has an impact on book stores. There has already in my home town been a reduction of dedicated book stores on the high street and in talking to people I know I can see a shift from buying hard copy books to e-books. 

As tablets and smart phones become more widely used and with the growth in the App market where you can download programmes like Kindle it's becoming  easier and quicker to access books from where ever you are without having to go in to a book store. 

I think there will always be a place in the market for hard copy books but I think the number of dedicated book stores and even libraries will continue to reduce if the current economic climate remains the same. 
Do you feel Kindle Direct Publishing is affecting the relationship between authors and traditional publishers?

I think it's changing the way the relationship can work.  Everything has to grow and change what worked twenty years ago in the industry might not be as relevant today or work as well.

I would hope that publishers see this as an opportunity to see what new writers can do.  It gives an idea of what the consumer likes and if that author is popular maybe in they would want to work with a publisher in the future. 

Also for writers I think it gives them a great grounding to find out which is the best way for them to work be it as a solely self-publishing writer or if they find they need the support of a publisher. 
 There are some that still feel self-published eBooks are not of the same literary quality as those published by major publishing houses. How would you respond to those remarks?

I think each book has its own value and should be judged on its own merit.  There may be some e-books that are not of the highest quality but I think you can also say the same of some published by major publishing house and vice versa.

Just because the path taken has been different is doesn't mean the work is better or worse. As a writer I want to put the best work I can out there and have my target audience enjoy it, I also want them to come back and read my next novel so I have to have this in mind when I'm publishing.  I want my work to be the best reflection of me, if it's not there is no incentive for a reader to come back and try your next novel.

We have also seen recently books that have started on line become massive sellers in hard copy and I would also say that books that have been converted in to eBook format also do well. I think in the end it comes down to the readers, if there is an audience out there as a writer you want to tap in to it any way you can. 
How would you like to see the Kindle Direct Publishing process improve or evolve in the future?

I think the system will become more streamlined as it grows and there will be more guidance and advice available for those using it for the first time. 

I also think the side of the system which deals with book sales figures and reporting will improve and expand over time which will give writers even more control over the way they manage and market their work.

Would you ever go back down the traditional publishing route?

I think I would always leave the door open but since I'm a self-published author now I'm not sure it would be the same as before. There is no longer that pressure that success can only come from having a publisher backing me.   I know I can get my work out there myself and market it myself while I might need advice and guidance in the future I know you don't have to always follow the traditional path to get what you want. 

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Ben Galley.jpgTech Digest eBook Self Publishing Season - Ben Galley Q&A

Chichester-based Ben (25) is one of the youngest self-published authors in the UK. He has published two fast-paced fantasy books through Kindle Direct Publishing including The Written and Pale Kings and plans to release his third and fourth books simultaneously in May this year.

In addition to being passionate about writing his own books, he is also incredibly zealous about inspiring other authors and writers. He regularly gives lectures and workshops on the subject of self-publishing, and runs the popular advice site SHELF HELP. His aim is to help others turn their passion into their profession and to follow their wildest dreams.

What originally drew you towards the self-publishing route?

Passion and frustration. Whilst writing my debut novel, I was completely unaware of any other way of publishing other than the traditional route. It daunted me however, in regards to its lengthy process, the relinquishing of rights and control, and of course, the practically unavoidable rejection. Imagine how thrilled I was when I started researching self-publishing. After seeing how much quicker I could publish, how much control I could hold onto, and the levels of professionalism I could still attain, I never glanced at the traditional path again.

Had you any experience with major print publishers before finding success through Kindle?

Not at all, though I have had some conversations since, thanks to my reasonable success. None of which have resulted in a change of direction for me.

The ease and the fact it comes in all shapes and sizes. When I say ease I mean, the ease with which I can publish; the ease of making changes at any point; but primarily, the ease with which I can go global and be part of the world's biggest online store with a click of a few buttons!

Are there any limitations to Kindle Direct Publishing?

Until recently, the limit for me was formatting. It was acceptable at one point for an eReader not to be able to handle the same lofty level of formatting that a paperback exhibits, and for an eBook layout to be very basic and plain. Now, with the Fire HD, and the introduction of tools like Kindle Comic Creator, we're seeing a market that wants, and can now have, top-notch formatting for their eBooks.
What challenges face those looking to self-publish their first eBook?

A range! There are a number of things that an indie author should not attempt unless they are a professional. These are: Cover Design, Editing, and Formatting. The bar has been raised too high for semi-professionals and amateurs. The market is too competitive and busy to accept poor quality. A good book and a good product is the first step of marketing, so my advice would be to source affordable professional designers, editors, and formatters, and make sure that book is the best it can be. That's the challenge.

Can a successful author make a living solely through Kindle self-publishing?

Yes, I believe they can.

Is your eBook also in print? If so, how did the process of getting the book in print compare to your experiences with Kindle self publishing?

Yes my books are also available in paperback and hardback. The process isn't too far removed from publishing eBooks, and that's why I don't understand why many authors aren't doing it. I'm a great advocate of keeping print alive, and encourage authors to release paperbacks or hardbacks. The physical market, despite what people believe, is still a healthy one, and we shouldn't ignore it.

The process of physical publishing differs in terms of different formatting, needing a larger cover, and finding a printing and distribution provider. Very simply, it's a slightly longer process. And, as you can't make changes to print books as easily as you can to eBooks, you need to get it right first time. Therefore it's more intricate too.

Do you see a future where brick-and-mortar book stores are replaced altogether with digital eBook stores?

Absolutely not. Just in the way that vinyl is still extremely popular, print books will never truly disappear. No matter how convenient an eBook is, people still love books. They love the smell, the feel, the stores themselves. They love them too much to give up.

I believe that the shift to digital threatens the idea of a brick-and-mortar chain, more than an individual store. I believe physical chains are less resilient to change than a digital store and that there will be a shift to local, rather than to national, that will save such stores and help book survive.

Do you feel Kindle Direct Publishing is affecting the relationship between authors and traditional publishers?

Yes.  For the better and for the worse. It all depends on what relationship an author has, or wants, with a publisher. The self-publishing revolution has affected many people in many ways. Some publishers feel that indie publishers have flooded the market with low-quality books. Others see self-publishing as a way to harvest new talent, rather than combing through manuscripts. Others are being bolder, entering into hybrid contracts with authors in a way that's never been done before. It depends on the publisher and on what side of the fence they sit. One thing's for sure, we're not going away.

There are some that still feel self-published eBooks are not of the same literary quality as those published by major publishing houses. How would you respond to those remarks?

By saying they are not reading the right indie books, and that poor quality isn't reserved for the self-publishing industry. Indie publishers cannot and should not be tarred with the same brush. We're all different, just like every traditional house and author is.

How would you like to see the Kindle Direct Publishing process improve or evolve in the future?

I want data. Anybody who dabbles in web analytics, PPC, or SEO knows that with today's technology it is possible to track nearly everything. Page views, duration, journey, bounce and exit rates, traffic sources, click-through-rates, open rates... If we can see it for a website, why can't we see it for our eBooks, for our readers? Imagine the possibilities of knowing which page that your readers lost interest on, or the page they just couldn't stop going back to. Imagine knowing who shared, who re-tweeted, or who's viewed your author page. That sort of information is beyond valuable for our marketing and success.

Would you ever go back down the traditional publishing route?

I automatically say no, but I've learnt to never say never. The publishing industry is changing at an incredible rate. Maybe one day a traditional publisher will suit me, and I them. Until then, it's indie all the way.

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TJ Cooke.jpgTech Digest eBook Self Publishing Season - Tim J Cooke Q&A

Devon-based Tim was formerly a legal executive and adviser to the BBC's Eastenders. Since then he has dovetailed his career between advertising copywriting, freelance journalism, screenwriting and novels. He always wanted to publish a book, however learnt firsthand how competitive the industry is having been dropped by his publisher at the final stage. He therefore turned to Kindle Direct Publishing to self publish and has seen great success with his two novels 'Defending Elton' and 'Kiss and Tell'.

What originally drew you towards the self-publishing route?

 It was the frustration of waiting, seemingly forever, for replies from publishers via my agent. After a while I decided to publish both books direct via Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing [for ebooks] and Createspace [for paperbacks].
Had you any experience with major print publishers before finding success through Kindle?

Not directly. My experiences had all been with literary agents, who were approaching publishers on my behalf. I was fortunate to be taken on by two of London's top agents, who both thought they could secure me a deal. Unfortunately though, it didn't look like it was going to happen. What made it particularly tricky was that the credit crunch and financial crash had not long hit and in my agent's words 'it left publishers jittery'. Advances were being savagely cut or even totally withdrawn and this hit new authors more than most.
What do you consider the main benefit of Kindle Direct Publishing?

It gives you an opportunity to get your work 'out there' and to find an audience. I had two literary agents telling me my writing was worthy of publication and that I had excellent market potential. The trouble was the publishers weren't prepared to take a risk. Like many other authors I'm sure Kindle Direct Publishing was the next logical step.
Are there any limitations to Kindle Direct Publishing?

Well I guess there's the exclusivity issue, but when you weigh it all up many including myself think Kindle Direct Publishing is the right way forward. Other than that it's one of those services where you tend to reap what you sow. The more effort you put in yourself the more you are likely to get out of it.
What challenges face those looking to self-publish their first eBook?

Very similar to those faced by authors who have been invited down the traditional publishing route - edit, edit, edit! The difference of course is that you have to either do that editing yourself or invest in a professional to help, which I strongly recommend. I guess many of the challenges stem from the fact that you don't have a publisher helping you with editing, redrafts, cover designs etc. You have to take that on yourself, so that in a way you are taking the risks when they are not prepared to.  
Can a successful author make a living solely through Kindle self-publishing?

Clearly some authors do. eBook sales are increasing all the time so the opportunity is there.
Is your eBook also in print? If so, how did the process of getting the book in print compare to your experiences with Kindle self publishing?

Both 'Defending Elton' and 'Kiss and Tell' are also available in paperback. The basics are the same, for example, make sure your work is as good as it can be before you publish. The only real difference is in formatting etc, but the Create Space site is really helpful and should guide you through. Having a good cover also helps, as poor covers tend to show up more on paperbacks than in Kindle thumbnails.
Do you see a future where brick-and-mortar book stores are replaced altogether with digital eBook stores?

I doubt that will happen. I think the two will find their own markets and settle down happily side by side. I expect digital sales will increase and take a further share of the market but like many I hope that book stores will remain.  
Do you feel Kindle Direct Publishing is affecting the relationship between authors and traditional publishers?

I was asked this question at The London Book Fair on one of the Author lounge panels. The best way I could describe it is by imagining a juggler, with authors, agents and publishers all thrown up in the air, and nobody quite sure how they would balance and land.
I think the key to change now will be how literary agents adapt, both in their relationship with authors and publishers. Some agents are now backing their clients all the way, whether they get a traditional deal or not. Some authors are having success without literary agents or a traditional publisher, and other authors are being approached directly by publishers and are then finding an agent to help them negotiate a deal. A few years ago none of these things were happening.
The more success independent authors have the more things are likely to change. One of the ironies of the direct publishing revolution is that some authors, who were once turned down by traditional publishing houses, are now being approached because of their successful presence on KDP. Some really good novels which didn't get noticed before have come to attention this way.
There are some that still feel self-published eBooks are not of the same literary quality as those published by major publishing houses. How would you respond to those remarks?

I would say it's best not to generalise. Of course some self-published books are of poor quality, but equally some are excellent. Most of the traditionally published books we read should reach a certain standard, but some pretty poor efforts do seem to slip the net from time to time. The only fair thing to do now is judge each book on its merits; however it has reached the market. After all, we often support the premise of equality of opportunity in life, and we should apply that to books too. No matter what its origin, each individual book should be judged on its content and not its background or route to publication.
How would you like to see the Kindle Direct Publishing process improve or evolve in the future?

 I think we have to look at this from a reader's perspective. At the moment they have a mass of material, some good, some bad, and some probably rather ugly. It would really help I think if Amazon could assign each book one or two totally independent reviews, so that the first two reviews were always impartial. That way everyone can still publish, and equality of opportunity remains, but we must try and get rid of that stigma where people think early reviews are the ones done by mum and dad, or husband/wife etc. They could also add a bit of their own blurb about the author or their experience. I'm not exactly sure how they would work this but something is needed... something about the book which is independent of the author, to help readers sift out the nuggets from the fool's gold. It's surely in Amazon's own interest to promote the highest quality work. It's a common gripe with the buying public, that all they have to go on sometimes is the author's own hype... which can, on occasion, veer towards the overblown.

Would you ever go back down the traditional publishing route?

 Ask me that in a couple of years time and my answer might be different, but right now the honest answer is yes. For all the reasons outlined above we haven't quite got there yet with independent or direct publishing. However, things are changing so fast I suspect the balance will continue to shift. If it does, and if it gives independent authors a fair and level playing field then all that should matter is the quality of the books.

What might lie ahead is a 'battle for hearts and minds'. Once the public feel satisfied that there is no inherent difference in the quality of the books available then the seesaw should come down on the side of direct publishing. I feel that if Amazon, as the leading player in this arena, addresses the issue of giving the public the sort of assurance that traditional publishers used to then things will really change. It will mean using a system that is open and fair, and that we can all have faith in, but it could make all the difference to the future for independent authors.

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Mel-Sherratt-2.jpgTech Digest eBook Self Publishing Season - Mel Sherratt Q&A

Stoke based Mel Sherratt, always had a passion for writing but worked full time as housing officer for the local authority so was unable to find the time to pursue this further. It was only when she was made redundant after 9 years that she decided to give writing a real go and self published her first crime novel 'Taunting the Dead' via Kindle Direct Publishing which went straight to number three in the Kindle best seller chart - a huge achievement! Since then, she has gone from strength to strength and has published a further three novels. She was recently chosen to speak about her experiences at the London Book Fair. We grabbed her thoughts on the Kindle Direct Publishing process.

What originally drew you towards the self-publishing route?

I tried for over a decade to get a traditional deal. When Taunting the Dead was rejected by the publishers it was sent to, often with some good feedback, I began to study the Kindle market to see what was selling. It seemed crime thrillers were doing well so I decided to self-publish it with the hope of getting a sales figure to tempt a publisher for any future books.

Had you any experience with major print publishers before finding success through Kindle?


What do you consider the main benefit of Kindle Direct Publishing?

It's a fast, efficient and easy to use system. So if you have a well-written, copyedited book with an eye-catching cover, something that shows you take pride in your work, it has more chance of being seen and read. For authors like me, it was a great opportunity to get their books to market.

Are there any limitations to Kindle Direct Publishing?

I'm not sure - I haven't come across any yet. I suppose one thing could be competition in stocking printed books in shops, yet more and more I hear that's the case with the traditional route too. And as things are moving more towards digital for quickness and ease now, it's not too relevant. I would love to see my paperback in a shop though.

What challenges face those looking to self-publish their first eBook?

Although it's getting better, there is still a stigma around self-publishing, but thankfully as time goes on, more self-published books are being read and enjoyed. I still think the main challenge is to get a book noticed. The notion that every self-published book is only self-published because it was rejected by a mainstream publisher isn't the case anymore. There are lots of books out there too, far too many to be published in the traditional way. Self-publishing is another option now.

Can a successful author make a living solely through Kindle self-publishing?

Yes, I think so. It's all about working on the next book to help keep interest in the others going. Once a new book goes out, sales of the others should increase too - as they should for any author who has built up a following on any platform.

Is your eBook also in print? If so, how did the process of getting the book in print compare to your experiences with Kindle self publishing?

One of my ebooks, Somewhere to Hide, is in print. I used Createspace and, once the files were created to upload, found it as easy at Kindle Direct Publishing. Whether you create the cover and the interior yourself or get someone to do it for you, the system is really easy to use.

Do you see a future where brick-and-mortar book stores are replaced altogether with digital eBook stores?

Not at all - I think it's about choice. And what could be better than going into a local bookshop where you can browse for books already on their shelves, but also, with the press of a few buttons on a machine, print out a book that isn't in stock, on demand. Combine it with a coffee shop, and cake, and I think that would be heaven for me.

Do you feel Kindle Direct Publishing is affecting the relationship between authors and traditional publishers?

No. Publishers will always want good books, as will readers. A lot of successful self-published authors are approached by and offered book deals by traditional publishers; some approached by agents too. Some authors also choose to only self-publish; some only want a traditional deal. I think self-publishing has given authors a lot more choice and freedom.

There are some that still feel self-published eBooks are not of the same literary quality as those published by major publishing houses. How would you respond to those remarks?

Writing for anyone is a business - there are lots of people doing just as well as the major publishing houses. But there will always be good and bad in everything. I would say that most self-published writers have covers designed by professionals, employ copyeditors to ensure their work is the best they can put out, learn how to market and interact with readers, and then go on to write their next book.

How would you like to see the Kindle Direct Publishing process improve or evolve in the future?

I'm happy with Kindle Direct Publishing because there is always something new, something being worked on in the future, that will improve things for all authors. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to self-publish with them and to get my words out there at last.

Would you ever go back down the traditional publishing route?

Yes, I make it no secret that I would like a traditional publishing deal. As to how that deal will look now though, who knows? It's very different to what it might have been two years ago. Publishing has changed so much, so quickly, and it's exciting to, hopefully, be part of something new.

Tech Digest eBook Self Publishing Season - Guides, Interviews and More on How To Get Your Work Read

Gamefly - Sean Spector - Co-Founder.jpgreview-line.JPG

Gamefly, the USA's leading videogame rental service, has made the jump over the pond and are looking to take old Blighty by storm with their digital PC games download platform and forth-coming digital subscription service. We caught up with Gamefly co-founder Sean Spector during a recent UK press tour, and got his thoughts on the PC gaming market, Steam, and the indie-gaming boom.


"Gamefly is the leading videogame rental service in the US. We've recently come to the UK, where we have a digital offering. Folks can buy digital games from a variety of publishers, ranging from triple-As to casual to indie, and we're launching a digital subscription service, currently in beta. I'd say to gamers to come check out our pricing, our client, our catalogue of games. You'll be impressed with the design of the client, as well as the content that accompanies the games and the social aspects too. Consumers win when they have choice!"

Sean Spector - Co-founder of Gamefly

Expanding beyond their US comfort zone, Gamefly chose to leave behind their physical rental distribution methods when bringing their services to the UK. Instead, they've expanded their digital offering to include a PC download client alongside their website, with an online store front that will feel familiar to any users of Valve's Steam or EA's Origin platforms.

Side by side, it's plain to see which of the three is the more visually appealing. Gamefly offers large embedded trailers of games, softly fading screenshots as backdrops to game info screens and even customisable, social features. Gamers can curate and design their own game collections into colourful, publicly accessible "virtual shelves" (for bragging rights, naturally) and there's also deep support for making friends with other gamers, be that through Gamefly's own integrated messaging and following systems or through external links to other social networks built into the client. While in the UK the client solely offers a solid 1,500 PC and Mac titles for download, in the US the client also lets subscribers pick from over 8,000 console and handheld titles to be shipped in their physical formats to their homes.

"We've tried real hard to make it look good," says Gamefly co-founder Sean Spector.

"We really love video games and we really want them to shine. I think all the publishers think we have the best looking client. I won't say, but that might even include EA [despite owning Origin - ed.)."

It's not just all about a pleasing aesthetic though; Gamefly are keen to make sure their new client is as stable and robust as they come, sometimes offering multiple updates to the software in a single day, each with extensive release notes. A large and dedicated customer services team deals with hundreds of queries every day (particularly complex considering the innumerable unique PC builds gamers use), promising to get to the bottom of any faults or issues.

Already looking like a solid platform despite it's relative youth, part of the Gamefly client's maturity lies in a key acquisition the company pulled off last year, buying the Direct 2 Drive digital distribution platform from IGN in May 2011.

"We've been working on our digital strategy for about a year and a half," says Spector.

"When Direct 2 Drive came up for sale it seemed like a good opportunity so we purchased it. It allowed us to move faster because of the relationships they already had standing with customers, not to mention relationships with publishers."

But even the best-looking client in the world is nothing without a competitive pricing model, and with rivals such as Steam, Origin and even online retailers like Amazon, Gamefly intend to dig deep to offer the best value for money, promises Spector:

"When it comes to pricing, some of it depends upon the publisher, but we plan to be aggressive with sales in the UK. In terms of subsidising, sometimes it's something the publisher wants to offer to consumers themselves, and other times it's something we at Gamefly want to offer on our own. It depends on timing and the title. But holiday sales, seasonal sales, weekend sales; we'll always have something on offer."
Though acknowledging them as a key player in the PC gaming field, Spector doesn't consider his service to be necessarily a direct competitor to Valve's Steam platform, believing they serve two slightly varying audiences:

"I don't think our consumers are exactly the same as [Steam's] consumers. They're very hardcore, we tend to be a little broader, with a wider-range demographic. At Gamefly we're completely agnostic; it doesn't matter what game or what platform we want to be able to give gamers the opportunity to get their hands on it. We're trying to create a more holistic experience, not just a sale-focussed experience. We've got a lot of good content that surrounds the game, and a stronger sense of community around the games. That's important.

"We'll also probably have a wider depth of content; not just triple-A and hardcore stuff, but also casual and family and indie stuff too. I don't think Mum is going to go on Steam. But I don't think a Steam guy will never shop at Gamefly, and vice-versa."

But even some of the hardcore audience seem to be a little wary of Steam's ever growing power over PC gaming. Take Minecraft creator Notch for instance, who recently expressed his concern over Valve's monopolising of PC gaming. Does Spector feel Notch's concerns are valid?

"It's always better for the consumer to have choice," is Spector's diplomatic response.

"When you have less choice, prices go up, and products are limited. The more people selling digital games in my mind, that's better for the consumer. Competition drives low pricing, and consumers vote with their wallets and pocketbooks. If Steam was the only place to go, there'd be no competition, and then of course everything that could bring with it."

Indeed an indie developer like Notch would be well cared for by the Gamefly crew, who even run the Indiecade developers' conference annually.

"It's a large gathering of indie developers, intended to showcase their games," Spector explains.

"We're talking to them about doing something very specific for digital now that we've got the client going. Embracing the indie community is an important part of the model. We're always being approached by indie publishers. I think the 'indie boom' is great. Indie mobile games, and indie PC games, they're really levelling the playing field against consoles where it is so expensive to make a game and publish it."

So what is it about indie gaming that has so captured the gaming community's imagination over the past few years? Creativity, says Spector:

"Digital distribution and the cheaper prices are part of the consumer appeal, but I think it's mainly down to originality and unique storytelling. Indie guys can tell a story about a tomato; that'd never get green-lit by a big publisher. Cinema is a great analogy; you have the big blockbusters and then the small foreign and indie films, but the middle has thinned out. That's kind of what's happening with games."

Gamefly also offer a digital subscription service, currently in beta in the US, and hopefully launching in the UK in the coming months. For no additional fee on top of the monthly subscription, games can be downloaded as many times as players want to, onto as many computers as they like. Cut your subscription and you lose access to the games. But what of your saves?

"We haven't quite thought that far yet," admits Spector, saying his team is looking at the options available to them.

But a digital subscription is quite a different offering from that of rental services like Blockbuster and even LoveFilm's through-the-post scheme. Can Gamefly's subscription pull customers away from those tried-and-tested methods?

"I think it depends on the customer. If you're a customer already comfortable with digital services that's an easy step to take and easy to explain. If I'm a gamer only used to physical services it will be a little more complicated. We'll learn how best to do it in the States, and then bring that knowledge to the UK."

The choice between physical and digital gaming may soon be taken away from gamers regardless, with rumours of disc-free next gen Microsoft Xbox consoles, and even a potential "Steam Box" PC gaming console for the living room. Are gamers ready to abandon their discs once and for all? And do Gamefly feel the need to keep up with the rapidly changing technological trends?

"Anyone can make a piece of hardware. The question is, will consumers adopt it. We don't think consumers want a digital-only future. Consumers want options, choice. There's something tangible about having the disc in your hand; if my PS3 breaks, I still have my game. It'll take time. Maybe the generation that's coming up today doesn't share that sensibility, so maybe over time that will shift. But none of these changes happen as quickly as people seem to think they will happen."

netflix-slim.jpgAfter a lengthy wait, the Netflix streaming service is now open for business in the UK, offering a robust catalogue of movies and TV shows onto a wide variety of devices, with an intelligent platform and UI that the company claims delivers the best streaming service currently on the market. But does it have what it takes to compete with LOVEFiLM's UK dominance, and is Netflix up to the unique challenges the UK market presents?

We caught up with Netflix CPO Neil Hunt at the launch of the UK service to find out.

review-line.JPGLOVEFiLM is already a well-established brand in the UK and, on the face of things, Netflix looks to offer a very similar package. What would you say are the key differentiators between your service and theirs, and what would the reasons be for LOVEFiLM subscribers to join Netflix instead?

I'd say we have a different catalogue of content that is broader and more interesting so they should definitely try that out. We also have a free trial for a month so there's the option to try it out to see how it works too. We have a tremendous range that you can view on practically any screen you put in front of yourself. LOVEFiLM, Apple TV, do not have that reach. We'll continue to expand that platform reach over time. We've been focussed on streaming since 2007 when we started streaming in the US, and we make streaming work really well, both in quality of delivery and the adaptive bitrate technology we use to put the best possible picture onto whatever platform you're viewing from.

Finally, but not least, I'd say the focus we have on streaming, with the single price point at £5.99, with no confusing pricing layers or tiers, no pay per view, no DVD, means your choice is very much simpler. That will translate into a much easier decision making process, and an easier to understand user experience. It's telling that LOVEFiLM is advertising a competitive price point, but it's not so easy to find on their website. Their website has various DVD programmes in it, and that's not where we're competing.

In the UK, one of the big bonuses of your service compared to competitors is that you're pushing 1080p full HD streaming. However, our ISP set-up is quite different from in the States; we get a lot of bandwidth throttling for instance, which harms video streaming, as well as wildly varying download speeds. Do you see this as a potential barrier?

I think we've put in a lot of energy to make it work well in the presence of variable bandwidth. The whole adaptive bitrate streaming system works by starting with a very low quality bitrate, and then quickly escalating the quality of the stream to match your connection capabilities, up to 1080p if you've got it. If the bandwidth is being throttled, you'll lose picture quality, but it'll still work seamlessly in terms of delivery, with no stutter. I certainly hope that there is no anti-competitive behaviour from providers who have their own video service, looking to penalise us as competitors. But the temptations are the same, and the regulatory framework is similar to other territories where we've had no real problems, so we're not expecting any real issues with that.

Much has been made of HBO's recent refusal to allow you access to their catalogue of Blu-rays and DVDs in the States. Is this a sign of things to come, what with Netflix now commissioning their own shows? Do they see you as muscling in on their turf?

Competition is always no-holds barred. I don't think HBO's posture with respect to the wholesale of DVDs and Blu-rays actually has much to say about their position on streaming content. HBO has rights to a portion of Hollywood output, but not all of it, and we've been successful in negotiating lots of other great stuff. We'll always have a content offering that's rich. It may not always have every specific piece of content, but there is plenty to go around.
You're working on bringing a brand new season of Arrested Development to Netflix, a show that, despite critical acclaim, was eventually canned due to low viewer numbers. Word-of-mouth now sees the show more popular than it ever was when it aired first. Is Netflix a good platform for similar slow-burning content?

Perfectly, yes. The key thing about the over-the-top delivery is that the content has a very long life span. We're not trying to find a mass audience to consume it all at once. We can afford to bring it to two people today, five people tomorrow and twenty people the next, as long as we an get enough people to view it over a window of several years.

All of the personalisation stuff that you see is really about learning about the content and the people, and matching that together. For instance, the first few people viewing new content help us understand what's great about it, and other users it might appeal to. Then you can deploy that over a long period of time, so that long-length lifespan for content definitely works to our advantage.

Do you think the rise in mobile streaming will affect the formatting of video in the future? For instance, will mobile data caps result in TV episodes being delivered in 5-minute chunks, or longer movies a "chapter" at a time?

To begin with, our platform already offers great "resume playback" and bookmarking functionality; you can start a show at home, and pick off directly where you left it on your mobile device when out and about. What we've seen with mobile and to some extent tablet usage is that there is plenty of reach, but shorter views. You can view mobile perhaps as a sampling method, helping you pick what you'll watch on the big screen. A lot of the content has been produced with the 40 inch or 40 foot screens in mind, so perhaps the small form factor consumption isn't up to that.

Will we see a shift in the kind of content? Perhaps we will, I'm not sure. I believe we have a platform that potentially allows us to match the content to the form factor. If there are fundamentally different types of content that better suit the mobile format we'll be able to take advantage of that and promote them for the appropriate devices.
It's well noted that you had a large number of subscribers drop off the service when you changed your pricing format last year. What have you learnt from that experience?

A lot of stuff about how to run a business! I first want to challenge the supposition though; we changed the pricing on the DVD services but we didn't change the pricing of streaming. The impact therefore was largely on the DVD space. The reason we did that was in a perhaps over-eager attempt to focus their energies where it really mattered, and that's on the streaming side.

Do you see streaming as the inescapable future of video distribution then?

Totally. Streaming is the future. My entire team is focussed on streaming.

But surely then, if you're experiencing drops in subscriber numbers, your customers are saying that they don't see it the same way, and still want equal importance given to the DVD services and physical formats too?

No, I think it's that we forced the choice for a lot of people. Many of them did choose streaming. The hours of viewing through the streaming business has grown month on month; we've never gone backwards on streaming progress.

The business of the future is streaming, there's no question about that. We deliver many times more hours of streaming every day in the US than we do through physical copies. In the UK, Canada and 43 other territories we only offer streaming. We deliver to the UK market the best possible streaming product. The missteps we had with delivering DVD were through focussing more energy on streaming. Maybe we reacted too hastily, and we were too optimistic about costumers rationality, but that's water under the bridge.

Though you're not the sole cause of its downfall, Netflix has played a substantial part in the demise of the once-mighty Blockbuster. What can be learnt by their failings, and do you ever feel any pangs of guilt for your hand in bringing a massive global brand to its knees?

(Laughs) Pangs of guilt? I don't feel any pangs of guilt for providing a more compelling service to more people, and fundamentally that's what free-market capitalism is all about. If you can provide a better product then you should get the resources to do that better. And that's what this was all about.

Netflix was certainly not the sole contributor. But the lesson to be learnt here is that hanging on to an old business model when a new one presents itself can be bad. Blockbuster waited far too long to find a place in the new subscription model market, at which time it was very difficult for them to compete effectively. We took that lesson, and realised that it'd be a big mistake for us to over-invest in improving and enhancing our subscription DVD service when we needed to get focussed on streaming, which is where the real competition is. Unless we focus all our energy on winning in the streaming space, we might be the next Blockbuster. It's another reason why, looking back at the DVD issues last summer, it was right to focus on a tremendously compelling product in the streaming market.

You've warned investors that the UK venture may take two or so years to turn a profit. At the same time you're slowing international expansion. How much is riding on this current wave of expansion?

We've spent a lot of money licensing content in deals that last many years. It's for the long haul, there's no pulling out. We need to be successful, and we can afford to fight with this for a long time. Our goal is to produce a compelling product at a phenomenal price point. Consumers will see that this really is the future.

Great, Tech Digest will be looking forward to how your UK roll-out pans out over the coming months. Thanks!

Thank you. We hope you enjoy what Netflix offers the UK too.

Motti Kushnir, Telmap CMO1.jpg
With print media slowly dying, so too is the effectiveness of print advertising space. Increasingly, advertisers are turning to the digital domain to tout their wares. Sitting at the forefront of this wave are Telmap, whose location-based advertising systems are able to pinpoint potential customers and drive engagement not only through pushing adverts tailored to a person's taste, but by taken into account who close a potential customer is to a point of purchase.

We caught up with Telmap's Chief Marketing Officer, Motti Kushnir, to discuss his company's plans for the future.

Q: How has being bought by Intel affected things at Telmap? What benefits/drawbacks come from being part of such a gigantic global brand?

A: As the deal just closed on November 30th, it's too early to really talk about its impact on Telmap. There are many benefits for both sides really. Intel sees mobility as one of its growth engines and plays a leading role across the mobility ecosystem, including consumer services. Location is a key pillar in mobility and Telmap is a market leader in the mobile location industry bringing with it some key assets.

Telmap has developed over the years a cutting edge technology and IP portfolio around
mapping, local search, and navigation. As a result, around 7 million end users are engaging with the Telmap location companion worldwide on a daily basis. Telmap also leads strategic relationships with tier-1 operators worldwide, powering their location services, and is working closely with leading content publishers from around the world whose brands Telmap integrated into the location companion for a richer, ultra-local more familiar user experience. In addition, Telmap's location platform tools and APIs allow the developers' community to enrich their applications with location and content capabilities.

Telmap will of course benefit from the scale and exposure enabled by being part of a global operation such as Intel, so the combination of Telmap's assets together with Intel's leadership, technology and global reach, is expected to result in a powerful joint offering for valuable and relevant mobile internet services, bringing Telmap services to tens of millions of users around the world.

Q: Tell us a little bit about Telmap's plans for location-based advertising in 2012.

A: There is the "old-school", traditional view of location-based advertising that talks about banners, sponsored search results, branded POIs on map, etc. But Telmap believes that the real opportunity for 2012 is around coupons and vouchers, a field that's growing tremendously, as well as commission-based services such as bookings and reservations. These two very prominent fields are where Telmap is going to focus its location-based advertising efforts in 2012.

Q: Who are Telmap working with to push location-based advertising campaigns?

A: Telmap has identified quite a lot of local advertising partners in its key markets. This is a continuous process, so we expect to bring more advertising partners on board during Q1 and Q2 of 2012. A partial list of the partners we are already working with includes: Advantago, KaufDA, Coupies, MyMobai, GeoAd, xAD, Yell Spain, and more.

Q: Please explain your licensing terms. What are the benefits of being a Telmap affiliate?

A: Telmap affiliates enjoy access to our distribution platform, to the mechanism of billing
through the operator as well as enhanced brand recognition. In terms of licensing, we engage in a revenue share model, splitting revenues between Telmap, the operator and the affiliate.

Q: What are the key factors in encouraging engagement from the end user with location-
based adverts?

A: Telmap believes there are three key factors that will ensure active engagement of users with location-based adverts and offers. First, the offer really has to be relevant to the actual, real-time location of the user at the time the offer is served. We will not, for example, divert users more than 800 meters when they are in the car and 300 meters when they are on foot, in order to follow an advert/offer, as our studies show that beyond these distances, people don't value the offer as a relevant one, to their current location. Next, it has to be in the right context, to prove relevant to the user. For example, if we offer a coupon to the zoo on a Monday morning, when someone is on its way to the office, the offer will deem itself as completely irrelevant, as the user is not in leisure-time mindset. Serve the same coupon on a Saturday morning, and the user receptiveness would be a lot higher, as it's the weekend and his/her current mindset matches such an offer. Lastly, the advert has to carry a real benefit for the user, for example 10% off, 1+1 offer or any other benefit that will entice the user. The advert should not be just a general awareness-generating advert as that's not as effective when it comes to location-based advertising. We at Telmap, make sure that every advert or offer served to our users indeed follows these three rules.

Q: If location-based advertising in your navigation apps is more attention-grabbing than
traditional advertising methods, do issues of on-the-road safety then become a concern?
Should this influence advert placement and design?

A: Telmap makes sure, in addition to following the three rules described above, that adverts are being served as an integral part of the application's regular flow, to minimize user's distraction. For example, we don't currently serve adverts during in-car navigation sessions, as we are still working on the best way to do that without being intrusive and distracting to the driver. We are considering voice-based adverts, and other ways of doing this, as it is clear to us that road safety should come first, above all.

Q: How about the adoption of NFC tech? Will contactless payment points have an influence on location based advertising?

A: NFC is a new method of payment, in addition to the already established credit cards, pay-pal, mobile bill, app-store and in-app payment methods. The advantage of NFC for us is that it can be used as another method of locating the user, indoors this time. For example, if a user just paid via NFC technology in a mall, we have knowledge on his/her in-door whereabouts at that moment in time, which can help us serve him with even more targeted offers.

Q: How sure are you of people's receptiveness to location based advertising? It's fair to say that some people feel advertising is already quite pushy; will people really want it following them and around on their smartphones in their pockets?

A: Telmap believes that the secret lies within the how and when the advert is being served. We see from both trials, consumer research, and results from the field, that as long as we adhere to the three rules mentioned above, and ensure that the ad serving is done as an integral part of the flow, people will see this as valuable service, that they are even willing to pay for, and don't really feel interrupted. Some examples include a Telmap implementation in cooperation with 'REST', Israel's leading restaurant guide, launching location-aware restaurant coupons, where 29% of users who accessed the app's widgets carousel, used it to access 'REST' coupons, with more than 10% coupons conversion rate.

Q: How about issues of privacy? What information do Telmap and your partners keep from those who interact with their location based adverts?

A: Telmap doesn't save any user information. We send the network information about the
user's location, and contextual information such as the key word request made, the context of the request (drive, walk, etc.), but all these data points are made anonymous, transferred under an anonymous, random identifier between Telmap and the ad server. Once the ad serving is done nothing is kept, so really there are not privacy issues here.

Q: Will Telmap be looking to expand their Augmented Reality offerings in the future? It was a term on the tip of the tech-world's tongue late last year but seems to have fell out of vogue now. Does the future really still have Minority Report-style interactive, aware adverts on the way?

A: Like any new technology, there was a big hype around Augmented Reality (AR). It quieted down a bit, and if it will prove valuable to the user, it will go through a maturing phase and will stick around. Telmap believes this will happen with AR and we are working on integrating AR into our application. We don't believe it carries a lot of value during in-car navigation, but rather during pedestrian navigation and wandering and exploration mode, especially in urban environments. Users can use it to better understand which stores reside in a certain building, before entering the building itself, what attractions are available around them, businesses open hours, sales that are going on, etc. We definitely believe it can bring lot of added value to end users.

Edward Saatchi, son of millionaire advertising mogul Maurice Saatchi, is being billed as the UK's answer to Mark Zuckerberg. His private, enterprise focussed social network NationalField is credited as a key tool in President Obama's successful election campaign, and, after successfully expanding the network to incorporate major US businesses, the 26-year old is now hoping that a UK and European launch will similarly drive productivity and efficiency for new member organizations like the NHS.

Articulate, and just as likely to reference statistician Edward Tufte as musician Art Garfunkel, the Oxford and Sorbonne educated Saatchi cuts a figure equal parts energetic and eccentric with his wild hair and unfettered beard.

We caught up with the NationalField CEO to see how the hotly-tipped network was getting on.


Edward, could you give us a brief history of NationalField? How did it get off the ground?

It started in 2007; I went over to the Obama campaign and met Aharon (Wasserman, now NationalField's chief product officer) and Justin (Lewis, NationalField's chief technology officer). One of the big ideas was to register a lot of new voters into the electorate.

Everyone on the campaign was using spreadsheets and Google docs to track the work that was going on, mostly quantitative work; doors knocked on, calls being made, that sort of thing. So two nights after the three of us got together, we'd built the first version of NationalField so that all of our teams could communicate and spread the numbers around.

How did you build the network? What informed its design and the way it works?

We decided that it had to be social. As young middle managers, one of the major problems we faced was communicating up and down the chain of command, moving great ideas from one isolated team to another. Building something that facilitated that was very important.

NationalField understands the hierarchical social graph of your organization. The social networks that cater for our personal lives work on the manual inputs of subscribing to feeds, following and adding friends, whereas this instantly understands who you are within your company.

Is this how it differentiates itself from other networks then? What can be done here that can't already with a combination of, say, Facebook groups and LinkedIn contacts?

A lot of our competitors ported over the ideas of Facebook and the way that that works to the enterprise. Take Yammer, which also does private social networks, all based on who you friend and who you follow. There you have to follow, say, a 200 or a 1,000 co-workers and contacts, so again you're creating your own little silo. The difference here is that it's not based on friending and following. NationalField understands what office you're in, who you report to, who reports to you, and what your role is, what departments need regular contact with you. It builds the feed based on that. You can search for specifics, but the feed is a predictive "push" model.

Hierarchical structures can be a little scary, but it's actually really helpful to understand that in order to present the correct information to the correct people. Also, you're only going to get really sensitive and interesting information going into this if people feel it's secure within the organisation. People are less honest if it's public to the world , but once you start to make it a bit more structured, people are confident to talk through problems; team morale dropping after a staff member leaving, a meeting not going as planned, things like that. It's actually really important stuff that can fall through the cracks until problems really explode, and then all a sudden you've lost a deal and you don't know why there was no communication.

So is it fair to say part of the appeal of NationalField is the way it encourages a competitive edge in the workplace?

Yes. With Facebook, there are interesting psychological processes involved. It's almost a subconscious thing, when you see people sitting there clicking through photos, like some weird primal thing. We focus on metrics, where sites like Yammer have leaderboards of "Likes" and comments, things like that. We have that too, but sometimes that sort of information can be tangential to what's really important to running a business. Is it that important to know who is the most liked employee? Maybe they're really helpful, but maybe they're just liked because they wear cool clothes! Here it's the actual metrics that are the focus, and we heard campaign trail stories of people refreshing the site just to see how their numbers were shaping up compared to other teams. Social can be great in making that data really transparent.

But despite the competitiveness, I've never seen anything mean put up on NationalField. Because it's social, it constrains the negative side of competitiveness, but it awakens in people the fact that everything they do at work is really transparent. People can show just how well they're doing, so it's also much more about recognition in the workplace, what people are proud of. What social can do is make recognition really easy to share, for a manager to give credit where it's due. And with NationalField best practice can be shared too; because we can get what your role is, recognised strengths can be shared to other team members or managers. Did you see the F8 stuff?


Facebook were using a phrase that we love: "Visualise data in ways which tell a story". It's what we felt we were doing right from the very launch of NationalField on the Obama campaign, trying to give each individual enough data so they could tell the story of the past few months of their work.

How did NationalField evolve during those early Obama campaign days? It must have been an intense time and environment within which to be working on a fledgling project?

Me and Aharon were really close friends for several months, and it all clicked when Justin came onboard. Justin was terrible at registering voters! He didn't like doing that. So we were in Savannah, Georgia, and together came up with a way to make the most of Justin's talents, hacking together something really fast for ourselves. It spread and grew in a similar way to those early Facebook days, with universities asking to come onboard; we did the same with the state and national campaign teams, staying up late to make sure they all got onto NationalField smoothly. Because it was based on Facebook in terms of design, it wasn't like we had to go around the country teaching people how to use it, it was really easy, intuitive.

Does NationalField cater for anonymity, if say you had a major or controversial complaint that you were worried about attaching your name to?

One of the interesting moments when we first started was around the "Ups and Downs" feature we have, which lets you flag the recent pros and cons of working at your company. We started with it completely bypassing middle management. We thought people would have no fear speaking their minds as, in larger corporations, often you've never met the top level executives if you work further down the chain. But then middle managers started saying, "actually, this is really undermining us". Which was a valid point. So we went back and worked in every single manager up the chain, and we found then that people felt completely protected, as middle management couldn't block something reaching the top levels. It changes working cultures, creates a place for constructive criticism and makes companies responsive and understanding. Once people start using it, people don't feel the need for anonymity. It's honest; social networking has brought down dictators, and it'll democratise the work place too.
So Barack Obama is obviously very social media savvy, and NationalField was instrumental in driving efficiency in his campaign. How does social media affect the public's perception of a potential candidate?

The cliché is that it presents a "connected person", but it really is a very practical tool, connecting with a lot more people. I don't know quite how all the party leaders managed to choreograph getting onto Google+ on exactly the same day! But it's helpful. President Obama is the best at harnessing it. He's actually comfortable with it and his campaign is organised around it. You still need an offline organising element, and for us technology was in service of the field. An online only campaign is very artificial. But if you do it in a way that emphasises community organisation and encourages volunteering and team building and so forth it's great.

Gearing up now for the Obama re-election campaign, has NationalField's role changed much in the interim years?

Yes, in the beginning its role was survival, like how the "hell do we keep this thing alive?" Now it's embedded in the organisation of the administration, and has been for a few years. It's becoming more of a platform, where you can build apps etcetera, so instead we're the portal for people who want to connect with organisations, letting them promote themselves, their work and internal apps. The emphasis now is on changing companies and work practice, and building the platform.

Does Obama make for a good boss?

He makes an incredible boss. At the inauguration ball he came and spoke to us all and said, "look, you're going to go back out into the world, back to companies or non-profits, and I want you to take with you the methodology that we created on this campaign, being bottom up and paying most attention to the field work". Because he'd been a community organiser far longer than any of us had, he had a real respect for the people on the ground. I got to meet him a few times through the course of the campaign, and he's very inspiring.

You're the first to admit that NationalField visually apes Facebook. Facebook's Chris Hughes is even on your board. Is visual familiarity important to the success of an online product?

Yeah, I've been saying it but I haven't really thought about it as a rule. I don't know why people would bother creating something for the workplace that isn't familiar to us through our consumer lives. At this point it just seems petty and pointless. It's ridiculous to be expected to learn a new system. The consumer world, through dealing with hundreds of millions of people, has figured out really smart ways to move information, so why should we ignore that? You should use systems that are really super familiar.

So moving onto the UK/ European launch. You've got the NHS as a new member, but running a national health organisation is a vastly different beast to running an election campaign. How can NationalField help the NHS?

We actually started in the US with Kaiser Permanente, the largest American health organisation. We got a real insight into how healthcare works with that. I think the thing that is important in health is that your patients remain the most important people, so if you can get people on the ground really connected, working together to cut costs while improving patient care, you can make a big difference. Because the NHS is so big, getting people to share best practices around cutting costs is really helpful; great ideas can be isolated in one place for years, but as we've seen with Kaiser Permanente, you can use NationalField to move such information around really really fast.

We met a woman when going up and down the country with the NHS who said "I can go home and tell my daughter I just got Facebook training." The positive energy that goes towards this, compared to if we were creating clunky intranets (which we're out to destroy), makes people feel they're not being forced to learn a new clunky thing. That should be a paradigm for what people are building.
Have there been many tweaks needed to bring the network to Europe?

It's interesting, I haven't been asked that before. Nothing drastic comes to mind. Language; so we added international localisation, having it in the language of your choice. But we haven't even needed to make any terminology changes. Because Facebook again has given people a feel for how information, should move and what they can expect from a feed, it hasn't had to be changed that much. It's kind of like a global thing, something that plays into that paradigm we mentioned earlier, building things that are familiar from our consumer lives. In the English speaking world we're all going to the same websites. Take the Huffington Post's UK launch; it has a little flag saying it's our version, and that's very nice, but it doesn't matter, I'm familiar with the way they present something and I'd be perfectly happy to read the content just through the way they present information.

How about international, cultural differences? Have their been any particular nations that have been more or less receptive to NationalField?

I think it's the same as what you'd imagine with Facebook and Twitter. The speed of uptake really parallels it. Younger generations in each company tend to get it first, say a new leader in a new department of an organisation, they want to make a change. I wouldn't say it's nation by nation, it's more about somebody wanting to build something that a new generation coming into the workforce can understand.

Do you still see a generational gap between youth and older members of society when it comes to the uptake of new social media ideas?

I think so, to a degree. We've seen it hit a tipping point now where we're conducting more communication points through social networking than email. A good leader is one that can see the trend and say "OK, let's get ahead of it". Social is a huge wave; there are films made about it, it's a big deal now. Look at the trend lines, look at things that are doing well in the consumer world, and that always points towards how things are going to change in the enterprise world. Our personal systems are much more sophisticated now than our enterprise ones, and a good leader should, or instance, be able to see the decline of email and adapt to that, using a system that everyone understands. It's not just young people who use Facebook, but it is young people who drove its growth.

We've spoke a lot about very large companies. Is using NationalField beneficial to use in smaller companies of, say, 10 or so people?

We actually find that organisations of around 25 people or larger is where you see the sweet spot kick in. Once you're at that point, you cant fit everybody in a crowded meeting room. Communication starts to break down at that point, and that's the ideal point to put the system in place. Beyond 25 people, into the hundreds and thousands of employees, it scales remarkably easily, with your feed out of the box.

How do you feel about being billed as the UK's answer to Mark Zuckerberg?

It's very nice! The thing that I think is cool about Mark Zuckerberg is the fact he was a psychology major. He has a moral mission. Every single time they change their privacy permissions, people feel like "Oh my god, they're trying to push more advertisements my way". But the aim is that really we should be more open about ourselves, which is obviously the end aim of psychology in a way. And I think that's really honourable, and really cool. Our moral mission is, considering we spend most of our waking lives at work, that if you feel like every single day you're working without getting any credit or recognition, that's a disaster, and a disaster we can prevent. The similarity there is the desire to figure out the underlying psychological need that a technology can answer, how we can use technology to make you feel good, make you feel productive.

So with Zuckerberg's story told in The Social Network, who would you like to see playing you in "NationalField: The Movie"?

Ahh, very good question. Who are people with big hair? Ah, Art Garfunkel! There you go. Though his poor hairline seemed to go up and up and up! He's actually a really good actor as well, you should see some of his stuff!

review-line.JPGOnce bitten, twice shy; it's a saying that could easily be levelled at Fusion Garage. CEO Chandra Rathakrishnan promised the world with the JooJoo tablet, billed as the first true iPad competitor, but sadly only managed to deliver a mediocre slate experience.

They've taken a year out and now they've returned with a brand new tablet and a brand new OS to put in it. The Grid10 tablet and GridOS, alongside the Grid4 smartphone, are Fusion Garage's next big hope. We caught up with Chandra Rathakrishnan to see what to expect from their new tablet goodies, and how he feels the tablet market has changed since their first attempt at breaking into the market.


In what areas do you feel the JooJoo tablet succeeded, and where did it fall down?

With joojoo, we took a web app centric approach, and quickly learned that users wanted webs apps and productivity apps that expand the usability of a device. joojoo was a category creating device and was introduced as the first internet tablet, and at that time we were only a 14 person team. It is no secret that we launched joojoo prematurely and the device wasn't stable. I learned a lot of lessons over the past year from joojoo with the biggest one being you can say whatever you want but you better have a good product to back up your words. I believe we have that product now. We have learned from our mistakes, building out our company and developing the new Grid products.

Would you call the Grid10 a successor to the JooJoo? Where if anywhere would say the two tablets share DNA?

Grid10 is an entirely new product, and is different from joojoo in many ways. The only thing that links joojoo and Grid10 is that they were uniquely designed to introduce a new OS to the market. With Grid10, we built on the Android Kernel built from the ground up, with many additional features that the joojoo did not have in line at the time of launch.

Though built on the Android Kernal, the Grid OS more or less is a brand new proprietar operating system and UI. Why take that route over, say, regular Android or Honeycomb?

We believe that there is simply too much sameness in the Android market and that the last thing anybody needed was another re-skinned Android product. True innovation begins at the heart of a product which, for us, is the OS. That is a core competency for us and we believe the differences with our Grid OS are readily apparent to anybody, regardless if you have used an Android product or not. We believe people deserved a true alternative to Android - while still being able to use Android apps via the Amazon market.

We created our own interface, interactions and own suite of software apps including email, video, music, notes, photos, and contacts amongst others. Additionally, Fusion Garage uses the Amazon Appstore for apps, Amazon Mp3 store for music, and the Kindle Store and Kindle app for books. Fusion Garage optimized the GridOS for the Grid10 hardware. Additionally, they built their own browser, which is a "chromeless" browser, as the chrome is invisible unless when called for by the user through the use of a gesture. This provides a full-screen browsing experience. The way we handle tabs and chrome controls are all different from existing Android tablets as well.

Are there Android tablets that you think are getting things right? Where do you feel Android tablets are going wrong, too?

I think that the market is saturated with Android, and while they work just fine and get the job done, the majority aren't worth buying over the iPad because there is no differentiation. Practically every major phone manufacturer has some variation of its own Android UI skin, and Barnes & Noble has taken the liberty of hiding most of the Android elements from the Nook Color. However the Fusion Garage use of Android is different. We used the kernel but made several changes to the stack above the kernel to create an entirely new user experience.

The Google and Motorola partnership: should other Android device manufacturers be worried?

If there is ever a time where one company has control over the OS and the hardware, there is cause for concern for anybody that does software development. That being said, I think that the thing that Android device manufacturers should really worry about is the sameness in the market. Without key differentiators in their products, nothing is drawing them apart from one another. That is why we choose to build a completely new OS and created a fork of Android, taking it in a different direction than that of other Android tablets.

HP's TouchPad crashed and burned, despite a mostly positive reception for webOS. Does that worry you in regards to GridOS? Is there room for another tablet operating system?

It was surprising to us when we learned that HP bailed out and killed webOS as soon as they did. webOS did have good perception and high expectations, and the truth of the matter is that the HP hardware didn't match up to the level of expectations that people had in the software. We like webOS and believe that it will find a home somewhere.

The fall of the TouchPad does not cause concern for us because when there is true innovation involved and not just a re-skinning, there is room for another OS. We believe that innovation begins at the heart of a product which, for us, is our OS. Our approach of building on top of an Android Kernel gave us the stability of an OS that people are familiar with, but allowed us to bring a new level of functionality, aesthetics and flair to the tablet market. It also allowed us to power a completely new type of user interface

The TouchPad sold well when its price was slashed. Is there a price/hardware sweetspot? Are tablets generally too expensive?

It is easy to sell product at firesale pricing, and we aren't surprised that the TouchPad sold very well at the $99 price tag. In the tablet market, there needs to be aggressive pricing as it related to the caliber of product. At $299, we are able to deliver a new and innovative user experience at a price point that allows consumers to have true choice at a surprising price when considering a something on the high end like the iPad or something on the low end like the TouchPad.

Has the TouchPad firesale influenced the Grid10's relatively low selling price?

No, the TouchPad firesale had nothing to do with our low price. The fact is you just don't see this level of innovation at £259, and we always wanted to bring it to market at this selling point. At this price, we are able to deliver a new and innovative user experience at a price point that allows consumers to have true choice when considering tablet.

What are you doing to attract app developers to the Grid10 specifically?

We have a developers relations plan, as Fusion Garage will launch its own app store - The Gridshop - this fall as developers begin to make applications available to the company. You can also expect an announcement from us very soon reaching out to the software developer community.

Are there plans for different sized Grid tablets?

We are constantly looking to innovate and expand. We have do have other devices in the pipeline for the future, but for now, we are focusing on the two current device sizes, Grid10 and Grid4.

Are we entering the end of the PC era?

We are entering a time of change and choice, but not the end of an era for PC's. I think that there will always be a place for PC in some way or another. There are simply more options for people to choose the correct device, be it a desktop computer, a laptop or a tablet, to fit their lifestyle and need.

The JooJoo had Apple's iPad in its sights? Who's the Grid10's main competitor?

iPad is not our competitor, we are simply providing an alternative to those who are seeking something different, and want an alternative to the sameness. We know that there are a sizeable number of people out there who want something new and we believe we have a great new product line that will appeal to many people.

In an ideal world, where do you see Fusion Garage and Grid in a years time?

Well, over the past year, we have certainly come a long way. We have been busy building out our company and developing the new products, and are now over 100 people as compared to the 14-person team we were when we launched joojoo. We now have multiple design centers - in Singapore, India and China - and have business relationships with major companies such as Amazon and Microsoft. In a year's time, we hope to continue to grow in similar ways. We want to be a larger company that has many products serving a wide array of consumers, and hope to be recognized as a global brand that has made an impact on the tablet market.
review-line.JPG We'll have a full review of the Fusion Garage Grid10 tablet in the coming weeks, so stay fixed on Tech Digest for more info soon.

Hot on the heels of the Tokyo Games Show and our recent hands-on playtest with the latest features of Kinect Sports: Season 2, we sat down for a quick chat with Rare Studio head, Scott Henson. The ex-Xbox chief spoke about working as Kinect's core developer, next-gen Xbox consoles and the future of beloved franchises such as Banjo Kazooie and Perfect Dark. Read on for our full interview.

What have you learnt about the Kinect sensor since the first Kinect Sports game?

With the original Kinect we set the bar for what was possible with the sensor. Now we've learnt we can raise that bar. There were a lot experiences that time around that were not quite ready, or we didn't know we could do. So some examples; last year we were throwing javelins, which were done with big, huge arm movements. This year we're throwing darts with very precise, simple movements. Season 2 will be all about innovation, so with Golf and Baseball for instance you see gestures and poses and interactions that took a lot of innovative software developments to make possible.

What's more important; getting a recognisable event in Kinect Sports: Season 2, or finding ones that fit well within the motion gaming mould?

It's not really an "or", it's an "and"! If you don't get the "and" you don't get a great experience. A lot of times I get asked "why did you choose the sports that you've chosen?". The number one reason is because the gamers have said "hey! These are the sports that we really like to play". Different sports present different challenges and opportunities in terms of how to make the most of them. We chose the six present in Season 2 because customers asked for them, and we believe we can make them into incredible experiences.

Do you have a favourite sport this time around?

Oh gosh! That's like my wife asking which of our two children I like most! It's tough for me as I have favourites for different reasons. For me, I'd play Skiing and Tennis over and over again. But that's just me playing on my own, and I like very active events. But I have two little girls, my wife and a ton of friends that I play with, and they all like different ones and I still play them all with them and have a great time. My eleven year old is really into the Darts event, and has become very competitive, my seven year old loves Baseball and my wife enjoys Tennis. Every sport here has a ton of reasons to love it, and a lot of that comes from the social aspects of playing with people too.

There's a big homebrew scene surrounding Kinect. How much attention do Rare pay to it?

Our job is to innovate and push what's possible in respect to the platform, so it's exciting to see so much enthusiasm around Kinect and what's possible with the sensor. There's an inspiration there that helps feed our drive for innovation. There's no specific homebrew work that I could single out and say has been a particular influence on Season 2. Most of what's in the game is driven by what was possible within the sports themselves. Some things we didn't even know were going to be possible, with the precision of Darts being a really good example.


Has the Kinect hit its potential now then?

I've been with Xbox since before we launched the original, and we've contemplated that question of the platform as a whole for the last decade. Every year I think "well, that's probably it". But you never hit it as there's constant innovation happening. I gave a talk at Develop a few weeks ago about Kinect 2.0, my way of saying that we've hit a new threshold of what's possible. Do I think there's a lot more ahead? Absolutely. It's a big canvas we've got to play with here, and that's what drives and propels this studio.

What are Rare getting right that other Kinect developers are getting wrong?

I don't want to pick on any Kinect developers, but I think what we get right is really making you feel central to the entire experience. There are moments here where you totally forget that you're playing a video game and you start to think "wow, I'm actually out on the slopes skiing here". You're in that moment. I know I say that's quite a bit, but there especially I feel really in the moment. The other part I think we do really well with is that no matter who you are, or your videogame skill level, you have a good time. You play Kinect Sports, you feel great.

How would you respond to old-school Rare fans who feel that the Kinect focus is taking the studio into too much of a "casual gaming" direction?

First of all, fans of Rare are appreciated. We hope that what we're doing with Kinect Sports appeal to people who are first time gamers and life-long gamers. Both. That's why you see us have casual entry modes like "Rookie" and then scale that experience all the way up to "Pro". We really want something in there for everyone. And so I would say if you're a sceptic towards motion gaming; give it a try. Try it with friends, try it with family, see if you have fun. The thing I'm most proud about is that I think we've really hit the sweetspot between having something that works for folks who identify themselves as gamers and folks who've in the past been intimidated by games, really creating a connection point between both.

Will Rare return to the likes of Perfect Dark or Banjo Kazooie any time in the future?

Our obsession right now is how we're going to push the boundaries with Kinect. I'm not going to talk much beyond Kinect Sports right now, but we're very fortunate to have the back catalogue that we do, so stay tuned for more news in the future.

As an instrumental figure in bringing the Xbox brand to life as a whole, how long do you think we have left in the life-cycle of the Xbox 360?

Mmmm...that's an interesting one. There's no horizon that I see. I think there's plenty of years ahead of us, especially when you think about Kinect. We're just months really into the life of the Kinect sensor. I was there before we launched the original Xbox Live and it's now still growing and gaining potential. So I think there's quite a bit of time ahead of us.

What would you like to see in a next-gen Xbox 720?

I'd like to see us continue to improve making it simpler and simpler for people to feel like they're having a natural experience. So things like voice recognition is a great example. Last year we were doing really simple stuff like saying "Pause" for movie playback. This year we're rolling out an expansive vocabulary around the world. I want it to be literally so natural that you're just talking to your Xbox and It responds to you. I don't think you need a brand new Xbox to do those things. We can innovate with software and services, and I think that will transform the way people interact with their entertainment. You'll see that not only with first party studios like Rare but with the platform as a whole, continuing to invest to make those things possible.

Click here for our hands-on preview of Kinect Sports: Season 2.

It's going to be a big year for Epson. They're pushing their first line of 3D projectors, with the top-end EH-TW9000W wireless model impressing at IFA 2011 in Berlin, while also navigating the murkier waters of budget-friendly projectors with their iPad dock-packing MG-850 HD beamer. Pushing for mass-market appeal as well as pleasing the cinephiles, we caught up with Regional Sales Manager Hans Dummer in Berlin recently to talk about the future of home cinema.

Why now for 3D projectors from Epson?

That's an easy one for us. It's all to do with regard to the 3D content. It's improved dramatically over the last year. There was big hype surrounding 3D at the beginning of last year but the content was very limited. This year alone there will be 45 new 3D movies and dozens of new 3D TV stations broadcasting so I think the timing is better in terms of consumer adoption and acceptance. We've also focused a lot on the simplicity of installation, making 3D projection adoption less of an undertaking.

So Epson's 3D tech has been ready for while, and it's been a matter of the content catching up then?

We've been working on refining the technology; we've spent a lot of time optimising brightness levels, somewhere you often have to compromise due to 3D glasses. But the last year has let us come to market with the brightest 3D projectors you can buy. Our 3LCD technology allows us to do that.

One of the big 3D stumbling blocks so far has been 3D glasses, their price, and how they aren't universal across brands. Explain for our readers Epson's stance on 3D specs.

We're part of a group that allows consumers to choose a variety of different active shutter glasses, not just the Epson ones. We've opted for active technology first, but we're looking into passive glasses at the moment aswell. Education markets have obvious application for cheaper passive glasses. But it's really up to the consumer and their requirements. I'm already requesting that our design teams start looking into glasses for juniors, the little ones in the family. As the technology becomes more adopted we're certain to get requests for these kinds of things coming through. If costumers are calling for red, blue, green framed glasses of all different sizes, we'll try to match that need.

Is passive not the more natural avenue for 3D projectors? Surely the bigger screen sizes that projectors allow naturally serve larger audiences, where inexpensive passive glasses are more attractive? What was the deciding factor in favour of active?

With passive projectors, you have to use stacking, which ultimately results in putting two projectors on top of another, buying two projectors as it currently stands. We're looking at developing that technology and where it's going, and you're quite correct; there are certain markets where it's definitely the way to go, in education for example where many inexpensive glasses are needed. But will schools buy two projectors for one classroom? It's a cost balance you'd have to juggle, but I'm sure our teams will have some solution in the future.

Projector prices are dropping all the time. Are we approaching mass-market price points yet, or will home projectors always be a niche market?

We'd like to see the market go all-in for 3D projection adoption, but the interconnectivity of devices is also guiding the market, and therefore prices. Take our MG-850 HD iPad projector; it's about simplicity. Simplifying the technology and making it more flexible will lead to a rise in adoption. Features like Wi-Fi connectivity in our top projectors will make projectors just as attractive to consumers as LCD panels. We're expecting big things from this year's line-up.

You mention wireless connectivity and the interconnectivity of devices.Why no Airplay in this year's range then?

We're looking at Airplay and the integration of a variety of streaming technologies. We're also looking at Android and the development of the Windows Phone7 environment. You'll see developments from Epson in all those areas in the future. As a neutral projector manufacturer we have to look at our customer requirements, which are key, and as we get requests for Airplay or the docking of a multiple devices we'll listen and look in that direction. I know our colleagues are looking at all these areas currently. We've always had a strategy to bring out products that differentiate from the rest, and products that are technologically ahead of the rest. Just because a year ago everyone was talking about 3D doesn't mean we were going to bring out a "me too" 3D projector. We want to show consumers real benefits when we add functionality.

Have Epson any plans for new pocket projectors? Epson haven't had any big news on that front at this year's IFA. Why?

Pocket, Pico, Nano; all these types of projectors have brightness issues. For us it's a matter of looking at 300 lumens, 500 lumens 1,000 lumens limitations; does the customer actually want that? Yes there is a market there, but it's a very, very small market. Primarily it's because although people want small products, they want strong brightness levels even more. Clarity, quality, it just isn't there. We're looking at that space, but right now it's not a big commitment for us. If you can bring out a projector at 2,000 lumens then things get interesting. It's also about serving gamers too as they are often the early adopters, and they want high resolutions and brightness more than anything else. Do you know what the "WA" factor is?

The "WA" factor???

The "WA" factor, the "Wife Acceptance" factor! Everybody laughs about it, but it's a significant decision making criteria. If you have a reasonably sized device with as few cables as possible, you're not cluttering up the lounge, it's much more acceptable. The future lies in talking to engineers, architects, making sure that when houses are being built provision is made for projector space. Wall inserts, under-sofa plug sockets, that sort of thing. We see it in the business industry already, and if we can bring that into the home you'll see projectors really take off.

Tech Digest got a little starstruck at this year's IFA 2011 conference, as we got to meet electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre.

The electro star's presence caused quite a stir at the show, not least of all thanks to his startling AeroDream One iPad/iPhone/iPod dock.

Think you've seen all that the world of iPod docks has to offer? Think again; Jarre's AeroDream One takes Hi-Fi docks to a whole new level, with the emphasis on the "Hi" part. The docking port sits on top of an 11ft column, which necessitates the need for a fixed ladder on the side of the speaker to reach it.

It's also got enough punch to match its gigantic size, pushing out an ear-popping 10,000 W through its 5 channel amplifier.

The AeroDream One is very much a luxury item, and priced at € 399,000 (£349,873) is definitely a statement piece as much as it is a speaker system. As such, Jarre sees it just as at home in concert halls as the homes of the wealthy elite.

We have a chat with Jean-Michel in the video interview above, discussing his range of Apple product docks (which includes more affordable miniature versions of the AeroDream One among other designs), the state of the music industry and the inspiration behind his latest mad venture.

Samsung TVs are leading the charge when it comes to web connected and 3D features. Our recent test of their UE55D8000 model saw us award the TV a coveted top-marks award. We caught up with Guy Kinnell, Samsung UK's Marketing Director for TV, to see what the company has in store for the future of their Smart and 3D TVs, and what it takes to keep a platform like Smart TV at the top of its game.

Many people are only just getting used to the concept of apps on a mobile phone. Is it too soon to expect Joe Bloggs to feel comfortable with them on his television too?

Due to the popularity of smartphones and tablets, we know people are comfortable with smart devices. Smart TV is the next step in the evolution of smart devices and Samsung Smart TVs do everything that other smart devices do and more.

The Samsung Smart TV hub is one of the most user friendly interfaces on the market and viewers are quickly mastering how to make the most of their Smart TV. For instance, Apps such as LOVEFiLM, BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are all common place in people's lives and are also all available on Samsung Smart TVs.

Some rural areas of the UK, and many wider areas around the globe, still lack decent broadband connections. Does this affect the sort of content you allow onto the Smart TV platform? And do you also think it has in any way affected the uptake of connected TVs as a whole?

Smart TV is different to a connected TV. The Smart TV experience integrates a multitude of content sources and provides many features designed to make the viewing experience more enjoyable (design, user interface, content discovery and search).

With respect to apps, the Samsung Smart TV operates effectively with a connection of 1.5 mbps or above. However, the more bandwidth an application requires e.g. 3D, the more consumers will need a stronger broadband package.

Traditional connected TVs may find their appeal more limited as they are often designed with an entire focus on specific apps rather than a more holistic Smart experience - this could impact their demand.

What do you feel makes Samsung's Smart TV platform better than similar offerings from rival manufacturers?

As the UK's most awarded TV brand1 Samsung is also leading the Smart TV market. Our strong reputation in functionality and design has continued with the Smart TV range and all our 2011 TVs feature our ONE DESIGN ultra-thin bezel which gives a virtually edge-less experience. This enables people to forget they are watching TV and feel like they are really there. Furthermore, the striking design of our TVs is complemented by the unmatchable picture quality, which has long been the benchmark of the market.

From a content point of view, Samsung is dominating the Smart TV sector by increasingly adding more content to the Smart TVs giving viewers a huge choice for their television. Recent announcements have included the development of the Five on Demand App onto the Samsung App Store as well as our 3D Video-on-Demand service, which offers consumers 3D content free and on-demand from Samsung Smart TVs.

While, Samsung's connectivity to other devices makes it easy for users to enjoy the benefits of the Smart Hub on items such as smartphones, laptops or tablets. We have recently announced the Smart View app for the Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone, which allows viewers to watch Smart TV content, and access other Smart TV apps on their mobile phone as well as and Blu-ray content.

But perhaps one of the features which we are most proud of is Your Video, a bespoke Video-on-Demand service, which recommends movie clips and TV shows that reflect the individual tastes and is further proof that Smart TV is not only an entertainment hub within the home but a device that thinks for you.

Technology changes so quickly; how do you assure customers and developers alike that their apps will continue to be supported, even if the TV itself has aged a few years down the line?

Samsung is continually building on the current Samsung Apps store to ensure viewers have the widest range of content to enjoy on their TV such as gaming, 3D videos and social networking and whether they still have a 2011 model in two years or five years time, these Apps will still provide as an important viewer experience as ever before.
In addition, with Samsung Apps recently passing the 5 million download mark worldwide, we know there is a great appetitive for Apps. Whether it is to support an App that is refreshed or a firm favourite, Samsung will also nurture its strong relationship with developers to ensure the uptake for Apps is continued.

Do you have a favourite Smart TV app?

Currently, I'm enjoying Samsung's ''Explore 3D App'' which for the first time in the UK, enables consumers to access 3D content free and on-demand from Samsung Smart TVs.

We've already seen that 3D services are headed to the Smart TV platform. Can you divulge any info on what you have planned in the future for this area of Smart TVs?

Until now, 3D content has only been available through paid subscription and Blu-ray, but over the next year Samsung will lead the TV market by providing more options for consumers to watch 3D content. We've recently launched the new 3D Video on-demand service, allowing viewers to stream free 3D content through a specially designed App for the Samsung Smart TV platform and by the end of 2011- 70 free 3D videos will be available through the 'Explore 3D' App. We anticipate this area will continue to grow with pace and expect to see some big and exciting app announcement in future weeks and months.

If you had to convince my technophobic granddad to do away with his CRT set and purchase a Samsung Smart TV, how would you do so?

For those customers who wish to upgrade or are afraid of the latest technologies, an in-store demo is a great way to familiarise themselves with Smart TV. Here they can see the features and benefits of the flagship 3D 2011 Smart TV range firsthand but also have 'a play' with the TVs themselves.

The cutting-edge design and enhanced picture quality of our Smart TVs are just some of the many attractors that are encouraging customers to make the switch.

Samsung Smart TVs are a device that thinks for you. Your grandparent could receive recommended content via Your Video based on their viewing habits or should they be a fan of BBC News or Eurosport they can access the latest news or match just by clicking on the App on their Smart Hub.

Furthermore, our next generation remote, Smart View Touch Control TV remote, which will soon be available as a separate accessory for Samsung's award winning D8000 and D7000 TVs, offers full control of TV features with only two physical buttons- power and function eliminating the awkward, cluttered button look on conventional TV remotes and one that too matches the usability of its parent Smart TV.

What is the plan for the Smart TV platform in, say, 12 months time? What sort of content can we expect to see?

Intelligent connectivity is going to continue to be the biggest development for the rest of the year and beyond. Connecting your Smart TV to your Blu-ray player, 3D speakers and soundbar and even your Samsung Galaxy Tab is going to continue to increase as people embrace the technology and internet speeds continue to grow too.

Samsung is currently driving the Smart TV market and with now over 5 million Samsung Smart TV apps downloaded worldwide we know there is a great appetite for even more content. Samsung is in discussions with a range of possible partners from across broadcasters, gaming, high street stores, entertainment, travel and App developers to ensure Smart TV is truly the entertainment hub within the home. The opportunities for Samsung Apps are endless and we're excited at the forthcoming prospects for viewers, developers and potential partners alike.

craig-chuter-pic-175x175.jpgApp developers Capablue recently won Samsung's App Developer Challenge, building an app for Astra that now features on Samsung's range of connected Smart TVs. We caught up with Capablue's Craig Chuter, Head of Business Development, to see what he thinks the future holds for TV apps and connected TVs, and the work that goes into making a successful TV app.

What unique challenges face app developers planning to work on connected TV platforms?

Largely due to the new technology and the evolving platforms, a major challenge is ensuring that we keep up to date with the latest releases and developments for each and every platform.

Another issue is with each platform having its own technology and a lack of platform standardisation means that each manufacturer requires a different application.
SDKs are developing and updating regularly as the technology matures.

A TV app is very different to a mobile especially and also the web, a blown up website to a large screen simply doesn't work. Although there are different controllers out there, you can't click and drag and you need to step to select, you don't have a free cursor. Text entry via a remote is also a cumbersome process, so we have refined the user experience in our apps to minimise this wherever possible.

We have spent the last year or more understanding and moving our knowledge as the platforms evolve. We have specifically developed our own Connected platform so that content owners are able to deploy their content to multiple devices without having to build separate applications for each device. We hold the core service on a cloud based platform that then renders the application according to each devices specific technological requirements.

Is it more or less difficult designing apps for use on a television than it is making one for a smartphone?

We believe it is as much different as more difficult as it is a very unique user experience that needs to be completely intuitive as the users are also experiencing these platforms for the first time. The experiences need to educate the user at this stage.

The input control is a major difference with connected TVs, for most cases you need to build an experience that can be navigated with the up, down, left, right and select controls of TV remote. The user is also ordinarily a long way from a large screen - so the interface needs to recognise that as well. There can be less intricate interactions that you may have with a touch screen.

This is why we believe that the TV applications work best with video as a major contributor to the overall content.

Also the TV is not in any way mobile, so the content needs to work from a fixed location.

You specialise in creating VoD interfaces. Do you feel the growing use of video on demand portals will eventually do away with traditional programming schedules altogether?

Potentially it could but I think the appeal is the combination of catch-up and on-demand services alongside broadcast. The transmission date may become more of a 'release date' and as with most other media, the release date is when a large bulk of the public want to see something.

Catch-up and on--demand services also support broadcast with the discovery of series and reminders, enabling the literal catch-up before the next program is broadcast.

Archive also enable you to pick up on previous seasons of a series all your friends may be into, enabling you to catch the latest season.

Also people like to 'lean back' and see 'what's on' not to search for something. Recommendations can help with this enabling pushed programming based on my programming but people often also want content discovery - finding something they might not have otherwise watched, this is where the concept for our content discovery application for the Samsung Smart TV Challenge came from. It enables content recommendations from a recommendations engine as well as feeding from your Facebook network, giving some more random but likely to be of interest results.

Do you ever see TV apps becoming as commonly used as those now available on mobile phones?

I wouldn't have thought so, mobiles are with you everywhere, you have the ability to access your mobile location and services that go with you.

Connected TV apps I think will grow incredibly but will be a different experience entirely to mobile apps, the TV doesn't move, it is a shared experience and you don't want to be inputting too much text on your TV as the handset makes this difficult.

I think the TV apps will become an integral part of our TV viewing experience especially for TV catch-up and film services. There are also certain other applications that will work very well on the TV, we are building one such service now, which we think will catch the attention of everyone with a connected TV.

The opportunity for branded content and e-commerce will also begin to deliver more utilisation of these services.

How has being featured on the Samsung Smart TV portal helped Capablue? Is taking part in the App Developer Challenge something you'd recommend other developers doing?

Our relationship with Samsung has been great, winning the Smart TV Challenge helps us ensure prospective clients that we have a recognised ability within this arena alongside the other clients we are already working with.

I think the competition is a great driver for developers to think about the platform and the potential of combining this great living room screen with some of the capabilities an internet connection can bring.

Also the more interesting content there is on the platform at this stage, the better the uptake will be. We are glad to see more services coming on board alongside all the apps we are currently developing.

When the platform first launched, for the experimenting consumer, if all they can find on their initial try-out of the service are a few, shall we say, not great games that is probably more damaging than good for the platform.

I think Samsung have really pushed forward with driving an interesting and engaging content proposition that we are proud to be part of.

Cybercrime is no longer exclusive to PCs and Macs, with hacks, spam, malware and trojans hitting smartphones, tablets and cloud storage services too. No-one knows this better than Costin Raiu of the security specialists at Kaspersky Lab. As the company's Director of Global Research and Analysis Team, he's got over ten years worth of computer and mobile security knowledge. We caught up with him at the InfoSec conference in London's Earls Court today and had a chat about the increased threat from smartphone hackers, social networking spam and the growing danger of international cyber warfare.

We associate malware and viruses most closely with desktop computing, but we're increasingly told that smartphone platforms are vulnerable too. Is there any particular mobile OS that is especially vulnerable?

There are four strong players on the market in terms of mobile platforms; Google with Android, Apple's iOS, RIM's BlackBerry OS, and with Nokia's Symbian OS effectively dead, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7. In my opinion Android will become the standard operating system in smartphones, but has a few quirks that makes it attractive not only to users but malware creators too.

Firstly, it's very open, secondly it's well documented in terms of the best ways to make applications for it, and thirdly has security vulnerabilities, especially in older Android versions. The problem here is that Google left the responsibility of patching Android largely to the carriers or smartphone developers. Looking back over past years, patching has always been a weak point of operating systems and third party software, and I have a feeling this will be a problem for Android as well because it's not very easy to update the operating system. There will always be flaws and vulnerabilities that will be exploited by hackers.

Will the vulnerabilities of mobile operating systems extend into security flaws with tablet devices then?

Yes. Netbooks being replaced by tablets seems to be the trend for the future. I believe that with Android becoming more and more popular, growing in popularity on tablet devices too, we're going to see more and more threats here. Do we need protection? I believe so. What is different with Android is maybe the kind of protection that is necessary is different here. Applications bought from the Android Market come with a prerequisite set of permissions, and there's no easy way to allow only certain permissions to be given to an app without not installing it altogether. In the near future Android security needs to focus on application control, and restricting the length in which applications can access data on your tablet or mobile phone.

More and more of our personal data is stored on a wider number of sources online, sometimes without our knowledge. Should we be concerned with how we safeguard our cloud-stored data?

Yeah, I think this is another interesting development. For instance, Google recently launched version 10 of Google Chrome which has the feature to synchronise passwords to the cloud, meaning you don't need to enter passwords for things like Facebook every time you use a different computer running that browser. It's my feeling that Google and other big cloud providers are not doing a very good job at informing the user as to the extent to which they are storing user data into the cloud.

Interestingly, Twitter recently settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the fact that they put their users at risk by not providing a decent level of security. The fact that Twitter agreed to implement HTTPS encryption is not only a giant "Win" for consumers, but also shows that we need a greater level of security when dealing with social media in general. Remember, it's not only about ensuring that companies do their best to protect our data, but that the connection sending the data back and forth is secure too.

Are the social networks doing enough to educate users as to how to identify dodgy links and phishing scams?

The FTC ruling shows that at least Twitter aren't doing enough, but this problem goes back several years. MySpace for instance didn't have secure log-in, with passwords going without encryption over Wi-Fi networks and the like for anyone to steal. All the social networks could be doing more about it, especially in terms of making users aware of the risks. But the FTC did a wonderful job, and it's exciting that Twitter understood the problems and took the necessary steps to improve their security.

So the more general authorities are now taking cybercrime more seriously too?

Yes. Security companies are pretty limited in the amount of things they can do. We can tell the big players that they aren't fully secure, but it takes more than that to make them change their ways. Governments have a very important role here, not just in the US but all around the world.

Kaspersky Labs have previously stated that the recent Stuxnet worm could only have been implemented with "nation/state" support. What does this tell us about international cyber security in relation to foreign policy?

Stuxnet is a "one-of-a-kind" malware, totally different to anything we've seen before. We thought it couldn't be unique but we haven't been able to find anything similar. Stuxnet is opening the door to a new kind of security threat which indicates the existence of cyber way at the highest possible level within super powers. In the future we're going to see more of this as I believe it's a very cheap and effective way of attacking major targets. The evidence we've seen seems to indicate Stuxnet was successful in gaining the access it needed. Attacking an industrial installation with physical force is a lot more expensive and more complicated.

What sorts of security systems do you have planned for the future?

In terms of future Kaspersky Lab software we're looking into three new, very interesting directions for our products, be it in cloud and virtualisation, whitelisting and reputation or mobile software. Data Leakage Prevention is also important now; it's a lot more easy for you to lose your tablet or mobile phone than it is to misplace your desktop PC! A really interesting product we're looking to launch this year is for VMWare Visual; we've had a lot of talks with our customers and bigger cloud providers and they've all expressed an interest in having a security product that can be worked into their data centres.

OK to round things up then; if you could give three tips as to how Tech Digest readers can protect their data today, at as little cost as possible, what would they be?

In order of importance, firstly they should update their operating systems; Android, Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, whatever. I know this can be quite painful, but it's very, very important.

The second on is to make sure they don't use pirate software. A lot of pirate software, particularly with Mac OS, come loaded with trojans. This can also be extended to pirate movies; recently we've seen "movies" on pirate torrent websites where the files aren't actually real videos. Instead they claim the user doesn't have the proper codec to view the film, directing them to download it from unsafe websites. When they download it obviously their machines get infected. So staying away from pirate sources in general is my second free tip!

The third tip has to do with user mentality. A lot of things happen because users aren't aware of security threats, so they click on strange links or don't properly screen links that friends have sent purely because they trust their pals, even if they're not so sure of the source. It's about using common sense and being careful if you spot unusual messages from your friends or social network contacts. If you see strange applications trying to access your profile on Twitter or Facebook, just don't allow them unless you're absolutely sure they're approved! So that's my three tips for your readers!

Cool, thank you very much Costin!

No problem.

nicolas-ricks.jpgA long time ago (yesterday) in a galaxy far, far away, (Knutsford, just outside of Manchester) Tech Digest went to visit the fine folks at Traveller's Tales, the development team behind the Lego Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter games. Gearing up for next week's launch of Lego Star Wars: The Clone Wars, we caught up with the game's producer Nicolas Ricks for a quick chat.

This is the third Lego Star Wars game across two console generations. When the series was first launched it was a breath of fresh air. How do you encourage gamers to come back for Lego Star Wars: Clone Wars when they've possibly put in hundreds of hours to the previous titles?

Nicolas: It's a very good question. Our approach is always actually very similar insofar as we try to understand what makes the Clone Wars TV show different to the other Star Wars films. That process of distillation made us realise that it's very much about these immense, epic ground battles. And so that is certainly an area we've focussed on heavily, giving the player the experience of being a Jedi general in command of hundreds and hundreds of troops and tanks, walkers, bikes and all kinds of other stuff. That, we feel, gives people a fresh and new way of playing with Lego in the Star Wars universe. At the same time we're very conscious that people like the Lego: Star Wars games, so we definitely didn't want to detract from that core experience and what we have in the traditional story mode. But of course we've added new characters, new moves, new abilities to build on that much-loved gameplay.

The Clone Wars is for many people a lesser-known element of the Star Wars canon. Do you think that will be a barrier for fans only familiar with the movies?

Yes, it's an interesting point; the games in the past have had the advantage of having duality of appeal insofar as that the older generations are familiar with the theatrical releases, while the younger generation are just happy to play that game. I think this game certainly appeals to the younger generations anyway, but for the older generation it's still full of incredible stories and amazing characters, many of which they'll be familiar with. Lots of the fun will come from discovering these great worlds and characters for the first time. But it was also very much our intention to have the game not just focus on the Clone Wars TV show, but across the whole history of the conflict, so you still get levels from the Attack of the Clones movie. We cover the entire storyline, so there will be things that people will be immediately familiar with if they haven't seen the Star Wars TV show.

How receptive is George Lucas and Lucasarts to the idea of you tinkering with their creations? Do you have creative freedom?

Yeah! Absolutely. We're immensely privileged to work with Lucasarts who have created such a vibrant and immersive universe, and they have been fantastic insofar as they've allowed us to lampoon their most treasured franchise. We've actually worked together so long now that there's a good shorthand between both camps; we know what we can do and what we cant do. There are obviously certain things that they wouldn't like to see done to their property, but those sort of things we obviously wouldn't want to do because we're making games "from Lego" and primarily aimed at kids. It's actually easier than you might imagine.

Has there ever been an idea that has been vetoed by Lucas and Lucasarts that you've wanted to include in the game, not necessarily because it is crass, but because it wasn't in line with Lucas's grand vision for Star Wars? Like Han Solo with a lightsabre perhaps, or Chewbacca with a super-speedy running shoes power up?

No not really; we both share a very clear and common goal insofar as we're retelling the Star Wars stories through the prism of Lego, and as such we know what we want to achieve and how best to go about it. As a result we've never had to ask for anything that Lucasarts would object to as there's a commonality of understanding. There are some things we have to be sensitive to, like secret characters in the game that are from the new season 3 of the Clone Wars TV show, and as they haven't yet been revealed in the series we have to be careful about how we show those, as they're available in the game before they'll be broadcast on TV. So there's a degree of commercial sensitivity, but never conflict.

Quite often you've got characters that have appeared in the films or show, but have never had the honour of being immortalised as a Lego minifig? How do you go about squeezing the character designs down to Lego size?

A lot of the time we're upgrading them rather than downsizing them! Look at the Power Droid or Gonk Droid; you see him for a fraction of a second in Star Wars, but he's immensely powerful here in Lego: Clone Wars. He's very slow but he's practically invulnerable! As for downsizing more principal characters, our art team work hand-in-glove with Lego, and we feel very privileged to be able to see all the Lego designs, paintings and play kits long before they hit the shelves. So we have an understanding and a direction as to where Lego want to take their playsets to. For instance you may have noticed over a period of time that the facial features of the videogame characters has increased, and that's in-step with their toy line, which is useful for us as it allows for a lot more facial animations and added direction to the cutscenes. So to answer the question more directly there are style guides we adhere to, we create versions of each character based upon that style guide, and then submit it to Lucasarts and Lego for approval.


Ever had a design sent back unapproved?

Yeah we have. There are generally quite a few back-and-forths, but they tend to be over the most minor kinds of things. "The eyes need to be slightly further apart" or "the ears need to be lower down" or something like that. Because again authenticity is very, very important to us, so any feed back we get from Lego or Lucasfilm is taken very, very seriously.

In that sense then the relationship you share with Lucasarts is unique: there are plenty of Star Wars games out there, but only Traveller's Tales gets to play with the galaxy with such freedom.

Yeah, completely.

So then; this is the first Star Wars game on the 3DS, and the first Lego: Star Wars game made in 3D. How has developing for Nintendo's new console been?

It's been fantastic working with Nintendo to produce a launch title for their console, and they've been great to work with, providing us with lots of help and tips on how to get the most out of the 3DS. But it's very much been a learning experience for both parties; while they're aware of the technical specifications of the console, its only when it comes to actually writing a game for it that you come to understand how these components work. With Clone Wars Nintendo have seen a game idea flourish on their platform.

Has working in 3D brought any unique challenges to the development table?

It has! When it comes to working in 3D the most significant challenge has been getting the 3D camera feeling right. As you can imagine, we want the game to be played by young children in 3D for prolonged periods of time, and we've spent a lot of time making sure the effect is sufficiently powerful enough to be immersive, but at the same time be easy on the eye. A lot of it comes down to ocular depth; that's depth into the camera, away from the player, making things appear to pop out. Lots of 3DS games have quite large ocular depth which can be quite uncomfortable. We reduced the amount of ocular depth and that made things really, really good, but we still found that after a while young eyes got quite tired. This fatigue is mainly caused when a character moves from the foreground to the background, meaning the player's eyes are repeatedly having to adjust focus and then refocus. So what our solution was to move away from a static ocular depth and instead set the ocular depth based on the character's position, which makes the 3D very soft and easy on the eyes and enjoyable for long periods of play. It's also about using the 3D to help players, not simply an afterthought tacked onto a 2D game. So we use it call out objectives, hints and things the player has found, jumping out of the screen. But overall the 3DS is an immensely powerful console, as you can see with the environmental lighting and bump mapping. It's a sumptuous device.

Would you think about working in 3D for future home console versions?

We haven't given it any consideration at the moment. What we feel is very important though is that the game be accessible to the widest audience possible. We wouldn't want to start implementing systems that would mean a gamer would have to require glasses or something similar.


The Lego videogame adaptations have become well known for their ability to get even videogame-phobics sitting around the console and having a go, young and old alike. How have you achieved this, and what tips would you give budding games designers aiming for a similar goal?

The popularity of the licenses speak for themselves, but having an understanding of how children play games, "full stop", is the most important thing. By this I mean children haven't learned how videogames work; there are a lot things that games do badly by convention, and as we've grown with them we've come to accept them. For example, that interfaces are always clunky or that progression always scrolls from left to right in a level. A lot of these constructs that we now take as standard might not necessarily be right, and children are the first to pick up on this, as they have no frame of reference. Understanding that is very important.

We've been making children's games here for a long time, so we know that putting a level in kids hands means we'll see them play with it in a totally unexpected way, and so we've learnt to adapt to that and embrace it. We keep signposting and objectives simple, we keep the screen bright and colourful, and most of all engaging. But they always do something completely different than we thought they would! So to make a truly great family title you need to understand what a child sees appealing in it, and once that's understood try to take that and adapt it in a way that adults can enjoy too. I think at the end of the day though, if a child is having fun with the game and the experience is collaborative, it's almost not as important that the parent finds it challenging and engaging too; it's the act of playing together that makes it appealing.

Other than Lego: Star Wars - The Clone Wars, what's your favourite Lego game that you've worked on and why?

Errr...I can't say Lego Star Wars 3?'s a very tough question. I really enjoyed Harry Potter. It's between that and the Complete Star Wars Saga, as with that you're getting two games for the price of one. But Harry Potter is fantastic because it does what we try to do here very well I think; it's a Lego game, but what is the distillation of being a wizard in Lego form? And that's the endless variety of Lego that you can play around with and create. You feel that sense of wonder, going from place to place. You don't know what's to happen when you interact with that Lego, whereas in Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Batman you know that you can smash it up and it'll break. In Harry Potter you never knew what the outcome would be; it could be a chess set that starts playing by itself for instance. It was that sense of wonder that gave Harry Potter its own identity.

Are you going back to the Harry Potter franchise in Lego for the last few film instalments?

(Nick is silent but gives a look that suggests he wants to tell us something very exciting indeed. Calling the first Harry Potter game "Years 1-4" might give a clue as to what he's holding back. Deathly Hallows anyone?)

If licensing restrictions didn't come into play, what brand, series, book, film, comic or whatever else you can think of would you like turned into a Lego game?

At the moment it's just hard to see anything past Star Wars! Once Lego Star Wars 3 is out there, which is very soon, I think we'll all sit down and have a break. And I think then we'll sit together and think it over.

No dream projects of your own then?

I've always wanted to do a pirates games, so Lego: Pirates of the Caribbean will be great.

And of course Lego has a great heritage in making pirate cove playsets and jolly roger ships.

Exactly. So we've always wanted to do a pirates game and that's very exciting. But anything else beyond the horizon I think we need to take a deep long breath before diving in again!.

That about wraps us up then Nick. Thanks very much for your time!

No, you're welcome, and I hope you enjoy playing Clone Wars as much as we've enjoyed making it.

Lego Star Wars: The Clone Wars will be available on PS3, Xbox 360, PC and Nintendo 3DS consoles from March 25th. We'll have a full review here on Tech Digest soon, so be sure to check back soon for our full thoughts.

Eric Huggers, Controller of BBC Future Media, was in town today to talk about the latest re-vamped version of BBC iPlayer, Auntie's video on demand service that has taken the nation by storm.

Shiny Shiny's Anna was on hand to give him a grilling, finding out how the BBC are planning to integrate social networks like Twitter and Facebook with the service, as well as a few hints at what the future might hold for the BBC's video on demand plans.

Hit the video above to check out the interview.

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Peter Johansson.JPGJust Cause 2 is one of the craziest open-world games we've seen here at Tech Digest. We caught up with lead designer Peter Johansson and asked his thoughts on how he feels the grappling hook-wielding explode-a-thon has turned out.

The original Just Cause came out relatively early in the life cycle of this latest set of games consoles. What lessons have you learnt since its release?

There were a lot of lessons to be learnt from the first game. The first game was essentially born from its engine, as was the whole company (Avalanche - Ed.) in fact. With the second game we have the luxury of having the engine already in place. Even though we knew we were going to change a lot of things we were confident that we could now focus on creating a game that took advantage of having such a big world to explore, filled with stuff for you to do, as well as a mission structure that takes advantage of that sense of scale. The first game was actually pretty linear, jumping from "story mission one" to "story mission two", but that didn't really work out as players just had only one really interesting spot in the game world at any one time. This time there's a greater sense of freedom, where you can think "lets head over there and create some chaos!". This time it's all up to you as a player.

Just Cause 2 sort of feels a bit like Bionic Commando on crack!

(Laughs) Yes! It does get kind of insane sometimes. It's an interesting point as I'd never even heard of Bionic Commando before starting on Just Cause.

How do you come up with the crazy ideas that litter Just Cause 2? Some of it seems like pub-talk gaming wish-fulfilment, especially some of the tricks you can pull off with the grappling hook.

Personally, I've always dreamt of making a game with a grappling hook, so it's a dream-come-true for me. We work quite organically at Avalanche, as we feel that some of the best ideas come from each others ideas a lot of the time. We'll try out an idea, and then tweak it, or throw it away. It's hard to find a straight path to great ideas. Just Cause gives us a lot of freedom to play around with this stuff, and at the end of the day it's all about having fun.

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Is it a big development team at Avalanche?

It's pretty big. We've had well over a hundred people working on it. Of course that depends on where in the cycle we were at, but yeah, a lot of people involved. There's an insane amount of features in there after all!

This is the first time also that you've developed a Just Cause game for the PS3. How has that worked out for you?

It's been pretty smooth actually. It's been really interesting. A lot of people ask us if it has been problematic, but no. Of course it's quite different. It's definitely very powerful. But you cant tell each version apart between the PS3 and Xbox 360, so I guess it's just down to what controller you prefer. They were developed in parallel, so they've followed each other pretty well.

There has been a bit of controversy with the PC version, as Just Cause 2 will not support Windows XP. How did you come to make that decision?

We support a lot features that just wouldn't be possible on DX 9, so I think that's the main reason for it. I personally wasn't involved in that decision. If you remember the first game was even ported to the Playstation 2. But we want to be at the forefront of the technology this time around, with just the current generation in mind. But yeah, I've seen the response we've got from some people over the decision!

The sandbox, open-world genre is getting quite busy again on this console generation. You've got Infamous and Prototype to name just two titles, and of course Grand Theft Auto IV. Some would argue that they perhaps haven't caught the imagination of gamers quite as strongly as on the last generation of consoles. Do you think gamers expectations have changed?

Of course gamers expectations are always going up, and things are moving really quickly now. That's definitely a challenge for us. It's a problem, as before a game is even released people are already looking for the next big thing. But in this genre in particular the successful examples have been really good at finding their own flavour and style. GTA does the city really well, you really feel like you're there, and then there is Crackdown that doesn't do a story at all and it's all about having fun in its playground. It was important to us to find our own identity. We really wanted to inject a good dose of fun into the genre, and go our own way. It's important if you're going to make it in this genre.

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Just Cause 2 never takes itself too seriously, but what do you think of games like Heavy Rain and it's focus on photo realism and narrative?

I think there is a place for realism, but it depends. It's almost hard to define realism in games, as they are primarily played for fun, but that can still mean that it can be realistic in visual terms. But it's so hard to define. When people push to recreate the real world it always becomes more and more clear that it isn't real. If I tried to simulate picking up a glass in a game, it's not at all how it feels to do it in real life. It's a difficult thing to crack. I find it easier to get involved in a game if it doesnt try to hard to mimic real life.

Just Cause 2 is pretty bombastic. A lot of people have compared it to playing in a Michael Bay movie. Do you feel such comparisons are justified? Do you take much inspiration from other media?

I think we do yeah. It's inevitable I think that we absorb lots of ideas, even if we aren't conscious of it. I don't think we ever were like " lets take this from this" though. I suppose the main inspiration was from the original Just Cause because that had a lot of potential that wasn't quite realised.

With so much going on in Just Cause 2 nailing down the physics must have been a bit of a nightmare, finding a balance between having fun and believable vehicle handling and so on?

That's a good question, especially in relation to how we've been discussing approaches to realism in games. Some people may react and say "oh, that's not realistic", but the thing is the physics system behind all this is really advanced. We fine tune and tweak everything to make it accessible and fun, and work together in a playful way. It's a challenge. All the vehicles have their different handling styles and are more suitable to different situations. Different ground materials too; if it beings to rain it gets more difficult to handle for instance. There are lots of small details that ensure that emergent situations keep happening.

Is it difficult to program those scenes of emergent action?

It's difficult from a testing perspective, and even from a design perspective. At the start it's easy to think "Ooo, we've got so much freedom", and then after a while you decide to not look at it that way, and instead decide to give the player a set of tools and let them find their own way. We work with the advantages that that provides instead.

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Do you find that limiting when games signpost what they want their players to do?

I think that works out alright. There are a lot of guys, myself included, at the office who play games that are completely scripted and that can be a great experience. But it's a different experience. They all have their own charm, their own story. But there is a lot of value to be had in playing a game and discussing it with your pal and realising you've both discovered something completely different to each other. That happens all the time with Just Cause 2.

Do you have any favourite moments from when you've been playing with Just Cause 2?

One thing I did actually quite recently. There's a car chase in the game, and, depending on where you drive, I'd got to a gas station, trying to deliver this guy to a drop-off point. And I had a rocket launcher and I was driving past the gas station, so I jumped up onto the roof of the car and shot the rocket launcher and blew up the gas station exactly as the bad guys passed through it. It was perfect and lucky timing! It exploded and collapsed right on top of them, I took them all out in one go!

Those sort of moments I suppose must give it an edge over scripted games, where you know that these events have been set up for you?

It's a large part of what makes Just Cause 2 different. There are all these features and mechanics that we want people to throw together, shake around and see what happens!

We've also seen the game displayed today in 3D. Where do you think the future lies for games in that respect?

I think it's probably going to take until the next generation of consoles before it becomes supported more. For it to become mainstream it's going to have to be supported straight out of the box; the players wont have to think about it, it'll just work without any hassle. For the moment it's still a bit sort of hardcore. It's been great fun for us to work on it this early.

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Do you think it will change the way you design games?

I think it will, by that time at least. I cant say that with Just Cause 2 there are many features that specifically harness 3D as it came in quite late into the development. But at that time for the next generation we will start to create experiences with 3D in mind as we know everyone will have a capable set up. I think it's going to happen, just the same as with motion-control stuff, and that's when it's going to start to get really interesting, mixing up the control schemes to see which part of the games really benefit from using all the new technology. One developers start learning how to really use motion controls that will be really interesting.

Lastly, how about DLC? It's in vogue right now. Any in the pipe-line for Just Cause 2?

Yeah, but unfortunately I cant talk about the details of it just yet, apart from the bonus you get for pre-ordering the game. It's premium DLC and you get some really cool stuff; I really like the hovercraft, driving from land to water and back to land, it's a really cool thing. But yeah we're going to have waves of it.

Great. Thanks for your time Peter.
Cool, thank you.

Just Cause 2 is released for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on 26th March. We'll have a full review leading up to the game's release, so keep checking back to Tech Digest's reviews page in the next few weeks.

CES 2010: Final Thoughts


las vegas sign.jpgThe Consumer Electronics show, the behemoth of tech, the Valhalla of gadgetry, has come and gone for yet another year. But this time, rather than arriving with a bang, it slinked into sight with something more like a whimper.

CES 2010 had really had the wind knocked out of it before it had even got into the ring this year. All eyes were already on Apple and their rumoured Tablet in the run up to the event, despite the fact that Apple are traditionally a no-show at CES, instead planning their own top-secret unveiling at the end of January. Likewise, Google delivered a sucker-punch in the shape of the Nexus One, their flagship handset revealed at their own event on the eve of CES 2010's opening.


To make matter's worse, Microsoft's opening keynote speech (delivered by walking personality drain Steve Ballmer) was pretty darn dull. First a power cut, then a load of waffle on the 2 month old Windows 7, Ballmer hardly seemed to be trying to keep our attention. Though the Christmas release date for Project Natal was welcome news, it revealed nothing new about the device, whilst the partnership with Hewlett Packard for the new Slate device seemed merely like a case of keeping-up with the Joneses. Or should that be the Jobs-es?

But the Las Vegas event wasn't without its highlights. Far from it in fact. Maybe it's the recession, or the generally pocket-pinching mood in the air these days, but for once the most sought after tech wasn't in the realms of dreamy aspiration, but was actually fairly affordable.

Take for instance the brand new 3D TVs on show, of which the Sony BRAVIA XBR-52HX900 (video above, courtesy of Ashley) was the pick of the litter. Finally shaping up to the standards set by its cinema siblings, company reps promised that the average 3D TV will cost little more than a top-end Full HD set. Skype and video calling in many TV sets too will help turn your living room into somewhere the Jetsons could only dream of.

E-readers are also looking to be both big and affordable in 2010. As a comic book fanatic I'd have liked to have seen more attempts at a colour screened e-reader (I'm not including the MSI offering, which is really just a dual-touch screened PC, super-cool as it is). Plastic Logic's Que Pro e-reader looked great though, with a massive, durable screen, and was far lighter than the hundreds of books you'd be able to store on the tabloid-sized device.

There were, of course, tablets aplenty. The dual-booting Viliv P3 may be an underdog in the category, but seemed way more exciting than Microsoft's offering. The offer of both Windows and Android on the same device showed a respect for user choice not often seen in the back-slapping world of consumer tech.

There was still time for fun too. The Parrot AR Drone Quadricopter was fun and fresh, combining real-world toys with augmented reality controls. A little less high-tech but full of retro-chic was the Lasonic i931 iPhone dock/ghetto blaster mash-up. Odd's on its at the top of Flava Flav's Christmas list. And there was still some time for the weird and the plain old dumb, too.

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Though less prevalent than other years, there were some great examples of brand new tech on show that were genuinely exciting. A real head-turner and my favourite item of the show was the Light Blue Optic Light Touch. Using a pico projection engine and a touch sensitive sensor, it'll turn any flat surface into a touchscreen. It works ridiculously well despite still being in the development stages, and has almost unlimited potential.

Some detractors say that, recession or not, CES looks to be on its last legs. It's sad, but not unlikely, when you consider the audiences that companies like Apple and Google can command for just a single product launch. However, for emerging companies like Light Blue Optics CES is still vital to gain some exposure, not to mention the fact that such a prominent date in the calendar forces the tech giants to have made some significant, competitive advances in their gear, year-on-year.

So here's hoping the old dog's got a bit of life left in it yet. Hopefully next year will kick off the recessionary cobwebs and kick the show back into high-tech gear. It wouldn't take much to tempt us back to the City of Sin once more.

Click here for full CES 2010 pre-show, day one, day two and day three round-ups.

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