Articles in the ‘Microsoft’ Category

Designertopia – Day 2

Friday 2nd Feb 2007

Designertopia – Day 2

After yesterday’s revelations, my expectations were sky high and I was not to be disappointed. I tried to split my time equally between creative and technical sessions, so I hope I provide a good overview of everything that was on offer.

First up was “Technocraft”, presented by Marcus Fairs, the founder of Icon magazine. My notes say that he talked about art using technology, but he talked about some very good examples. There were three which stood out, mirrors created from silver balls and servos, a chandelier with LED-embedded crystals that could write messages sent over SMS (called Lolita), and a simple device called the armchair activist, a speaker that reads out text messages (it is currently in the designer’s office. It’s phone number is: +447790272804). Images and videos below.

Lolita by Ron Arad

So, with that rather light-hearted session out of the way, the creative track tackled “Creativity vs Technology”. We were warned that from this point onwards the speakers would start repeating each other from the day before, therefore, I’ll only tell you about the new stuff. Question: Is there creativity in the interactive space without technology? Answer: No. There are certain things that we are unable to do in that space without technology. The user’s expectation is now very high so they need to involve the user. To do this, you must focus your users on a mission, create a puzzle or building blocks and let the user solve it, giving them the proper incentive of course. Secondly, designers must collaborate with designers from the initial stages of conception, involving the end user/consumer in the process. This is similar to the way that extreme programming and agile development works. Whilst this talk didn’t really have much to do with creativity vs technology, the main theme was that they must be used together to create a complete experience.
The speaker left us with a web site This man specialises in generative design, providing a set of rules for a program to follow that then creates the image.

The talk before lunch was more of a demonstration than anything. Carrie Langham from Microsoft took us through a number of real-world WPF applications including one for London fashion week, a golf tournament (which looked very good, with an enormous amount of detail) and finally an application designed for 2012, the final stage of the Building Schools for the Future project. I’ll admit, this was the first time that I was truly amazed at what a WPF application could do, but I was incredibly surprised at it. I’ll explain…

What was shown to us were four separate applications, a teacher’s workdesk, a student at home, a student on a UMPC, and an administration application. The student and teacher apps had Vista sidebar gadgets associated with them too which launched the apps themselves. The workflow goes like this: A teacher sets an assignment and posts this to his students. The teacher can drag and drop graphics into an assignment in his workbook from anywhere and can even add bits of video. The student then opens their application (every desktop is customisable) and reads their workbook. They see that they have been assigned a partner and they can then IM/audio/webcam chat to their partner about their work. They then set up a shared workspace and can add things to it. Provided is a search facility which brings up articles, picture and video from approved sources (i.e. MSN Encarta). They can then drop these into their shared workspace and construct an assignment. They are also able to delve deeper into pictures and diagrams, i.e. a model of the body, double clicking the heart displays a 3D model of a beating heart that they can rotate and go inside. If they need help at any point, apart from all the resources on the net, they can call up an expert (IM/audio/webcam) and get an answer straight away. They then submit the assignment to the teacher who will add the marks to his online mark book. All this functionality is contained within the one application. The admin application that we were shown tracked pupils through the school using RFID tags. This application would then flash up alerts and call parents whenever they had been truant for a number of days, and, if necessary, would call the police!

This all sounds amazing. All this functionality in one place is astonishing, and its already happening too. Some schools are implementing RFID tags for registration and school access. Marking of homework is being done online starting from this year. However, from all this I saw a number of challenges, even in 2012.
1. Bandwidth – some of this stuff was very high quality. Even on an 8Mb connection, if someone is saturating your upload bandwidth with P2P applications, webcam performance degrades significantly.
2. Approved sources for search – Homework will suddenly become the same as kids are unlikely to dig for additional information.
3. Copy and paste generation – Children will not learn as they may just copy the text and past it into their homework without reading it
4. Experts – People don’t want to be bothered at 10pm and will not care if it’s deadline day
5. Privacy – Do you want your child to be on a webcam with a so called “expert”???
6. Assumption of computing power – It’d be really nice to assume everyone will be on Vista, have a UMPC and a webcam, but that’ll never be the case. Will this application run on OS X? I doubt it
7. Assumption of quality of resources – Poor resources will break this system. If you look at the 3D model of a heart and want the lungs but they’ve not been written yet, then you’re in trouble. Low quality models won’t provide adequate data either. What if the student is studying a really abstract section of the curriculum? Are the trusted sources guaranteed to give back an answer?

There are a lot of problems that need to be ironed out, but as a proof of concept, it’s astonishing. I’m going to try and get the demo, or at least slides of it, then I’ll show you what’s going on.

Still with me? Good.


The first talk of the afternoon was by Lars Engman, design director of Ikea. This was more of an inspirational talk by a man who had been in design since 1968 and had been at Ikea since 1975. He explained Ikea’s design process, which is similar to any other design process in the world, except for the idea stage. Ikea look at trends, and go the opposite direction! Below are a few facts and quotes from Ikea’s methodology which I found interesting:
Ikea is the 6/7th largest restaurant chain in the world. Their Bejing branch is able to seat 800 people.
Good design contributes to positive emotions
Science and technology define functionality. Simplicity is a virtue
Identify the relevant customer benefits of a product
Design is not about trends, but new ways to meet a person’s needs
Dare to fail, you will learn even more
When you have good design, beauty will look after itself

I need some of those in big print on my wall 🙂

Windows Vista Media Centre

The final talk of the day was on Vista Media Centre and Live services mashup. It was presented by a guy who definitely knew it was Friday afternoon and most of the demos were poor (thanks to the hotel’s limited net connection and the non-functionality of his Xbox 360). He demonstrated the theory behind TVs with media centre extenders built in (think Apple’s iTV but for media player), and explained what you needed to write applications for this service. To be honest, I didn’t take much in and started writing this up.

After this talk, I was approached by Emile from AKQA, saying that they were looking for students interested in the web site side of this in their creative development and IT development areas and to drop them a C.V. when I graduate. Sounds good to me.

In summary, it’s been a great two days. I’ve learned a lot about what is expected of next-gen internet applications and what Vista and WPF can do for applications. Clearly, social sites like Digg and Flickr are here to stay. Users don’t just expect quality from big company sites and large networking sites, but from every site that they visit. It’s no longer just about the hook of the web site, it’s the way they carry it off. Impress, or fail.


Currently Listening to: The Shins – Wincing the Night Away
Currently Reading: AJAX for Rails
Currently Watching: The world go by
Currently Eating: nowt
Miles to Sheffield: Don’t know, however many it is from Watford Gap

Designertopia – Day 1

Today has been a real eye-opener. The things I learnt today, I will remember for a long time to come.

Expression Studio
Expression Studio

Lets take it back a bit. Microsoft invited MSPs to the Designertopia conference at the London Marriott for a two-day conference on web development and design. Principally, its about Microsoft Expression Studio (their answer to Macromedia Studio). This includes Expression Web (Dreamweaver), Expression Blend (Flash but with total integration for Web), Expression Design (Fireworks) and Expression Media (a media catalogue and video encoding tool designed to be the final process before putting on the web). All of these things require some form of Visual Studio (express will do, Pro with Orcas CTPs is best). They’re all linked together by the .NET 3.0 framework which includes XAML, and ASP.NET 2.0 with AJAX. XAML allows for fancy effects that Adobe has been doing for ages to be put together in a markup language that anyone can use easily. This allows for some quite funky web sites, most of which can be seen on

However, Microsoft also announced the second beta of WPF/e, a cross-platform browser independent (well, currently not Opera) set of libraries that allowed for 3D object manipulation and all sorts of fancy effects that .NET 3.0/WPF comes out with. Using Expression Blend, you can create some great web sites using .NET 3.0 online. These sites impressed me a lot (especially the Burton one). You can see demos at Channel 9’s WPF/e Playground

This keynote speech was good, but it wasn’t amazing (well, the 3D stuff was). With my exposure to Digg, Prototype, and dojo has rendered me somewhat immune to regular AJAX effects. What I didn’t realise however, was the business effect of such things. The New York times has a reader written in WPF and users of the reader spend 10 times longer looking at the paper than those visiting the regular HTML site.

The first afternoon talk I went to was on the future of games and mobile entertainment looking at interaction with the user. The only really interesting bit was the potential introduction of emotion into video games. Headsets exist that can almost measure your current emotional state based on perspiration, heart rate and blood-oxygen levels. Imagine, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion with quests that you can only get information out of someone if you are angry with them! This talk also defined a very simple thing. If the core interactivity of a game is not fun then the game is not fun (i.e. in Quake the core is moving and shooting. If it’s not fun, it’s not a good game).

Webby Awards

The second talk I went to was entitled, “Participatory Design” and was presented by the Director of the Webby Awards. He told two contrasting stories about implementations of user participation into a web site.
1. Doritos: Crash the Superbowl
– Create a 30 second ad for the Superbowl
– No limits, just feature Doritos
– No tools given
– Submissions moderated by Doritos before going online
It created major interest as it was targeting people in small advertising companies who have access to camcorders and editing suites. The prize was suitably big; it doesn’t get bigger than the Superbowl. Any malicious adverts simply didn’t make it. It produced high quality ads i.e. video below.

2. Chevy SUV ad
– Create an ad for a new SUV. Potentially shown on TV
– Given creative tools online. Stock footage and ability to put your own captions on too
– Users can share their videos instantly online.
Chevy messed up. Their target audince, SUV drivers, don’t care enough about Chevrolet to make adverts for them. Therefore it falls to regular internet users who are very knowledgeable about issues such as climate change and the MPG of an SUV. Giving these people the tools allowed them to make realistic looking videos available online with a minimal amount of effort (just about as much effort that the general internet user wants to make). Chevrolet also released this on a Friday with no moderation process. By Monday morning they had a large number of negative adverts circling the internet that look like Chevy made themselves. By the time they took them down, it was too late.

More negative Chevy ads

1. Target the right people
2. Use the right incentives to attract the right people
3. If you want quality, don’t make the process too easy
4. Avoiding bad press is essential, mediation can be necessary

Adaptive Path

The final talk of the day was on a technical track. Called “Connecting Design to Real Business Value”, presented by Brandon Schauer of Adaptive Path (who will be getting my C.V.). He took us through a series of examples trying to answer the question: “Does good design lead to an increase in product value?”. He presented a number of examples from Flickr (photo web site) to Lula (book publishing web site). He came up with a simple workflow:
1. Identify problems – I want pictures for these users on my site
2. Compare projects and potentials
3. Benchmark metrics – Quantify things and see how much it should bring back in value
4. Design and Test
5. Assessment of Value – See how well it has done, quantify it.
6. Set budget – If it was successful, budget goes up
7. Repeat

The main problem is in identifying the areas of a business that will produce the most revenue from additional functionality. His solution was to first produce a simple business model (using as an example). So, books uploaded * quantity sold * profit per book = revenue. The difficult part is to identify ways in which these simple factors can be increased. He pointed us all to a book published by Adaptive Path: “Business Case Modelling for Design Initiatives” Adaptive Path Publications. The final important part is to prototype this new strategy. Brandon used storyboards to illustrate the effect on the user of this new strategy aimed at getting authors to write a second book. These simple storyboards are designed to be shown to clients for active discussion on ideas which then may/may not become a new design feature.
It boils down to a few things:
Model the business, identify areas in the model that can be enhanced
Connect value with user behaviour. Quantify it and how to design it
Prototype the strategy
He recommended that you watch the design documentary on The Incredibles and that design studios take cues from film into having “dailies” to identify good and bad bits early.

That was the end of day 1. At the networking event afterwards (read: free beer) I met a man called Ian Lloyd, who wrote “Build Your Own Website the Right Way” – Standards based web design for the complete beginner (Link – I hope I get some freebies for the plug). Talking with him about general practice in web standards was good, but what surprised us most was that of the people who had laptops, >50% of them were macs (mostly macbook pros) and that most of the presentations were given using Keynote, but that one of presenters used Vista under bootcamp on his mac! It’s a Microsoft conference but that won’t stop Apple ruling the design space. Unless Adobe completely screws up CS3 (not likely), no one will be moving from their mac.

I’ll also mention that over lunch I met two people from RM ( – the computing firm I most associate with computers in my primary school). Well, they’ve convinced me to apply for a graduate position there. It seems they do quite a bit of interesting consultancy out of their Oxford offices, including the government’s school rebuilding project. It seems that they don’t just network all schools in the local area, they’re then connected to a complete country-wide network. RM are also into rebuilding schools from walls to catering (all outsourced but all contracts must be tendered etc) so the work is very varied. It sounds fun and at 22-26k starting I won’t say no.

Well, I hope you’re still reading, that was a really good mini-essay and there’s more tomorrow.


Currently Listening to: the sounds of London i.e. taxis. Oh, and The Killers – Sam’s Town
Currently Reading: My notes from today and the agenda for tomorrow
Currently Watching: Scrubs – 606 – My Musical. Best Episode Ever!
Currently Eating: Hotel food, not bad!
Tube rides so far: 3

Vista launch = patches

If you didn’t know already, Microsoft officially released Windows Vista yesterday. I’ve been running Vista for 2 months now, and in that time it I’ve seen some major performance improvements, mostly thanks to new drivers.

Yesterday, I knew it was launch day because windows update tagged 9 new downloads for me. 6 patches for Vista (including one that wasn’t optional), a texas hold’em poker game for Vista Ultimate users (which isn’t too bad once you get used to it, textures are a bit off though) and Visual Studio 2005 SP1 for pro and express (I have express installed for XNA studio). Overall improvement to Vista: minimal. Most of the speed boosts will come from drivers, just have a look what a good video card driver can do in this ATI/nVidia test: link

In other news, I’ve started up Uni-Sport development again, this time on rails. Struggling with this new language reminds me of my first forray into PHP almost 2 and a half years ago. In two days I have created a small application that reads RSS feeds, sorts them by date and displays them. Two days, for that! It seems that this agile framework isn’t so agile really, or is it just that I spent most of my day assuming that rails wrote accessors and mutators for me.

Anyway, this small section is rather flexible and will become part of the portal site which will eventually reside at This will aggregate news/events/results from around the network. It’ll do it all in a funky AJAX-enabled way too with flashy prototype effects. Depending upon how bored i get in the next few days I’ll be debuting it very soon.

Finally, I’m off to Designertopia today, courtesy of Microsoft, so I’ll give you an update of what I learned from that then. It should be good, I’m looking to pick up design tips from the best, and I’ll pass them on. It’s a service, I know. 🙂


Currently Listening to: Bloc Party - A Weekend in the City (words cannot express how good this record is)
Currently Reading: Agile Web Dev with Rails 2nd Ed
Currently Watching: the world go by
Currently Eating: Lamb korma
Days until next interview: 5 (phone with Fujitsu services)

What I Learned at XNA

So, Microsoft and their DirectX team, being the geniuses that they are, have come up with a new product, XNA Studio Express which is rather good. I went to the launch event at Warwick uni thru the MSP programme. Here’s what I learnt.

1. XNA is a great technology
The demos that they showed were amazing. Literally, 5 lines of code got some components loaded and everything sorted for windows or Xbox 360 and you’ve got a spinning cube lit with phong shading. All this ease makes you able to focus on gameplay instead of fiddling around with rendering modes etc. Also, the ability to compile for either Xbox or windows with a few minor chanegs is amazing.

2. Peter Molenyeux is a great man
He really knows his onions. He’s a great speaker and has a clear vision. It’s all about positivity and drive. Playing about with something until its fun, concentrating on the gameplay rather than graphics or using the physics to make gameplay features.

3. If you want to develop games, you MUST know C++
Talking to the people at Rare, Microsoft and Peter, they all said, you’ll still need to know it for the next 5 years. XNA is great, C# is one of the easiest languages to learn ever, BUT, you can’t get all the hardware access (apparently, XNA is 95% of the XDK (Xbox dev toolkit. It’s currently missing the networking layer)) and pointers are essential if you’re really pushing the envelope of what it can do. Until the CLR is at 99% of C++ native performance and XNA allows full hardware access, people won’t change. Apparently, using XNA, the games at the moment are CPU limited rather than GPU limited. PPC cores were never really good for games 😀

4. Academics should not be allowed to be funny
They are not funny, the best joke had the punchline “why the long face”

5. I want an Xbox 360
But apparently, Santa can’t fit one in his sack. Lousy santa