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Tech Articles

Various technology articles from The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday – click the blue links to read the original web version of the stories

Edinburgh filmmaker at vanguard of machinima movement – IT is a Brit flick like no other, featuring luminaries of the nation’s film and television industry in an epic tale of love in a dangerous fantasy world, made almost entirely in an ­Edinburgh flat. A pioneering cross-media film-maker has recruited Joanna Lumley and Brian Blessed for a unique film which uses one of the world’s best-known computer games as its “virtual soundstage”.

Five years in the making, Death Knight Love Story is a fusion of game, motion capture, and traditional voice acting. Since its release last month, it has proved an online hit around the world. The film, which also stars Jack Davenport and Anna Chancellor, was inspired by Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and was largely made by Hugh Hancock in his flat in the ­capital.

Blessed said the “wonderful new techniques” employed in the feature offer new challenges and opportunities for actors, while Lumley said her decision to join the cast was born out of the belief that actors “can’t afford to be divorced from new methods of entertainment”.

Hancock, regarded as one of the founding fathers of the machinima movement, a medium that has spawned its own film festivals, described the experience of working with such veteran actors as “absolutely amazing”. The 36-year-old writer and director created the film using the graphics from the popular online role playing game, World of Warcraft, before using motion capture technology to use the game’s characters as his actors and its locations as his sets.

Those who helped Hancock realise his vision contributed their talent for free or at a reduced rate. The film’s stellar talent was brought on board by Gail Stevens, casting director for hit films including Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting. Lumley said that although every actor was “a little bit nervous” that motion capture technology would eventually see them “dispensed with”, it was important to use new methods of storytelling.

She said: “There’s an old phrase in acting which is, ‘Stay in the boat’. As things change, stay in the boat. Don’t go, ‘Oh, I would never dream of doing that’ or ‘Oh we didn’t do that, I haven’t been trained’. Just learn and stick with it and find out how it is going. Because you’ll find that you’ll be able to contribute quite a lot more than you thought you would, but secondly you can’t afford to be divorced from new methods of entertainment.”

Blessed said: “I feel one mustn’t be afraid of new technology, and people condemn it all the time… I ultimately feel that all the avatar techniques and all these wonderful new techniques that are coming through will actually bring a new reality, and the actor will be needed much more. Virtually it’s going to be so brilliant that they’re in your sitting room.”

Even though the 20 minute-long film is now out, Hancock said he was still shocked at attracting such a well-known cast to star in Death Knight Love Story, which he made for around a tenth of the budget of a film that would use conventional technology. “It was absolutely amazing, I cannot stress how fantastic it was working with people with that much experience and talent,” he said.

“I did not expect to get anything like the calibre of actors we have in the film. I approached Gail and some other people and pitched the idea, expecting all of them to turn round and say, ‘Well that sounds very interesting, but no’. In fact what I got was, ‘Well that sounds very interesting, can you come to our offices in the morning?’ The next thing I knew we were discussing casting Brian, Joanna and Jack. The entire thing had suddenly taken on a life of its own.”

The film-maker, who first started making machinima shorts in 1997, said he was particularly pleased with the success of using a game to tell a love a story, an unlikely genre for the medium in general, and pointed to its myriad possibilities. “The technology means there’s no requirement to tell the story within the story of the game world,” he said.

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The Social Network T-Shirt  – A Scots firm has developed a revolutionary new type of clothing which allows wearers to make their own fashion statements by proudly emblazoning their chest with updates and messages from their social media networks.

The tshirtOS, billed as the world’s first “wearable, shareable, and programmable” T-shirt, features its own built-in operating system and LED screen, which displays constantly-changing images. Devised by the whisky firm Ballantine’s, the cotton garment allows wearers to share their updates with others as they walk down the street, with a built-in camera even letting them take photographs of their surroundings.

The firm says it chose the 
T-shirt because the item has long been a way for people to express their individual tastes and attitudes. Ballantine global brand director Peter Moore explained: “The T-shirt is the original canvas of self-expression. It was the Facebook status before there was a Facebook status. Whether you wore the Smiley Face, Che Guevara, or Frankie Says Relax, your favourite 
T-shirt tells the world something about you. Ballantine’s has taken that thought and made it bigger.”

It says the pioneering prototype is not a gimmick and has been encouraged by a flurry of interest from technology enthusiasts and fashionistas alike, with a promotional video on YouTube attracting more than 300,000 views in the space of a week, and thousands of people registering their interest in buying one.

Given the potential of the 
T-shirt not only as a fashion item, but a marketing tool for advertisers, Ballantine’s promises that if it receives enough interest in the product, it will look to produce it en-masse.

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Rohan Nayee, Ballantine’s digital manager, said: “The prototype has been in the making for six months. It cost more than what the average Joe would pay for a T-shirt, but the version we work on for consumers will be affordable.

“We’re going to wait till we get the next wave of registrations before tshirtOS gets ready to hit the shop floors.” The digital shirt is capable of showing different displays courtesy of a microprocessor that communicates with the wearer’s iPhone, so that if they change their Facebook status, or take a photograph using the popular Instagram app, it will be featured on the shirt for all to see.

Weighing around 150 grams, the T-shirt – designed by London-based technology firm, CuteCircuit – can be hand washed once the battery which powers it is removed. Observers believe that if the design can be perfected, it will be a major draw for ­consumers.

Scott Douglas, director of Holyrood PR, said: “In the technology sector, there is always something that is on the verge of becoming very big, and it looks like the marriage of mobile and wearable tech is the next thing. It’s built for all those people who can’t live without their social platforms, and that’s not just young kids, it’s people in their 40s and 50s who live their life very publicly through Twitter and Facebook.”

Digital twist takes Buchan classic one step beyond –  IT IS a timeless thriller that has left generations of readers on the edge of their seats as they follow one man’s desperate attempts to elude an unseen enemy and protect the interests of his country. Now, nearly a century after its publication, John Buchan’s taut classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps, has been reinterpreted for a new audience courtesy of a digital update which offers a distinctly modern twist on its conventional narrative.

A Scottish company has created an interactive visual version of Buchan’s most famous work which merges the worlds of literature, gaming and film. Described as a “revolutionary interactive novel,” it fuses Buchan’s 1915 text with stop-frame animation, hand-painted landscapes inspired by the book, voice actors, and original silent film music.

It also uses archive material from the National Library of Scotland, including copies of Scotland on Sunday’s sister title, The Scotsman, to set the story in context. While not strictly a game in the traditional sense, readers are able to immerse themselves in locations from the novel, collect items and unlock achievements as Richard Hannay’s plight plays out.

The book’s publisher, Faber & Faber, describes the experience as something which is “not a game, not a film, not a conventional novel, but all three.”

John Buchan's masterpiece to be updated in multimedia edition

The idea is the brainchild of Glasgow-based Story Mechanics, which began exploring the concept of digital adaptations three years ago by working on sections of classic titles, including Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations. Encouraged by the results, it soon settled upon Buchan’s masterpiece as its first project proper.

Simon Meek, executive producer at the firm, explained: “The idea is never to replace the original text or the book, but instead offer a new way that is empowered by technology and current media consumption trends. We’re also seeing a want from the traditional gaming community for more story-driven interactive experiences, and know that the huge number of casual gamers are keen to try new forms of entertainment to pass the time. We have ebooks and the like, but these are simply books with add-ons and enhancements, not ground-up remakes of the stories they contain for new audiences who want to consume them in different ways.”

He added: “Games almost entirely use story as a tool to contextualise gameplay. This means that the emphasis remains on the skill of the interactions, and therefore will ostracise many people. It’s known that most people don’t finish games, which is at odds with them being a vehicle for storytelling.

“However, what we have tried to do is put the story at the centre of the experience – where the sole reason to interact is to be told the story, to experience it from the inside out and allow depths to the narrative and reader experience.”

Originally published as a serial in Blackwoods magazine, The Thirty-Nine Steps was the first of five novels to feature the now iconic literary hero of Hannay. Buchan himself described the novel as a “shocker,” suggesting the adventure was so unlikely, the reader was only just able to believe that it could really have happened.

Over the years, the work has been adapted numerous times for television and film – the most notable example being Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version – but Story Mechanics believes the source material lends itself to its unique interpretation. “The reader is transported into the world of the book, where they experience its story from the inside out,” Meek explained. “We effectively tell the story in situ, using location as our storytelling canvas, where the whole book has been researched and faithfully storyboarded to evoke the mood and character of the story.”

The use of period copies of The Scotsman and other archive documents, he added, helps “bring the book to life in an incredible new way”. “We don’t shy away from putting the fictional story alongside the real happenings such as the Suffragette movement or Empire Day celebrations, and the adverts alongside the text only goes to further give a sense of the era,” Meek said.

Henry Volans, head of Faber Digital, believes the adaptation breaks ground in digital publishing, and fledgling plans are in place to reinvent other well-known Faber titles. He said: “It’s not the same as the book, and it won’t replace the book. But there are strong reasons why the new adaptation to digital really matters. For a start, by focusing on existing readers, publishers miss out on a huge group of people who don’t read, or only read rarely.

“It’s incredibly faithful but also different. I love the book. I think it was written extremely quickly, and you can tell: reading it is like watching the development of the spy thriller. With the digital version, what I get most is an absorption in the atmosphere.”

Scots firm creates way to hide internet footprint  – In the age of Big Brother and the prying eyes of the National Security Agency and its allies, it is billed as a way of reclaiming the internet for ordinary people.

A Scottish firm has hit upon a way to allow people to access the internet free from monitoring and surveillance by major corporations and government agencies. The company, Maidsafe, has developed what is describes as a “decentralised and anonymous” online platform that taps into the unused computing power of laptop and desktop computers around the world. The system is designed to curb the growing unease over how people’s online footprints can be traced, as well as greatly minimising the threat faced by individuals and businesses from cybercrime.

Known as Secure Access for Everyone (Safe), the initiative has attracted several million pounds in private investment and counts the former chief operating officer of Skype among its advisers. The Safe platform has already attracted a groundswell of support from computing experts and academics who believe it will bolster privacy and security measures online.

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Based in Troon, Maidsafe has been working on the initiative for the past eight years. Nick Lambert, Maidsafe’s chief operating officer, said he believed Safe would offer respite for those concerned about online liberties. “The platform is about security, freedom and having control over your own data,” he said. “The power and influence some firms have over the internet has happened quite gradually, and that’s part of the problem.”

Unlike the existing infrastructure of the internet, which relies on vast centralised servers to hold and transmit data, Maidsafe has struck upon a way of using home computers. In exchange for offering up some unused hard drive space on their own devices, users of the platform will be able to browse the web safe in the knowledge that their identity is protected. As things stand, the data we transmit while using the internet is stored in vast data facilities that are prone to security breaches. Safe, however, uses technology similar to that seen in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to break up data into slices, known as “data shards,” storing them on machines with an advanced encryption system.

Whereas the existing internet sees popular sites routinely crash under huge demand because of everyone trying to access the one central point, the more users there are on a website using Safe, the faster the site loads. Dr Natalia Chechina, a research associate at the University of Glasgow’s school of computing science, said: “This network is a huge step forward in handling private data that will definitely change our attitude to privacy in the internet.”

However, Désiré Athow, editor of TechRadar Pro, a technology website offering IT insight for businesses, warned that Safe would not make computers immune from hackers, adding that similar initiatives have failed to capture the public imagination.

Forget a currency union – here comes Scots Bitcoin – WITH the debate over what currency Scotland would use in the event of a Yes vote this September at a stalemate, it is a 21st-century alternative.

Every Scot has been invited to claim their windfall of a dedicated national online currency designed to fend off the dangers of traditional markets. Known as the Scotcoin, the cryptocurrency is envisaged as the Scottish equivalent to Bitcoin, the digital tender that is now recognised by nations and companies the world over.

Those behind the initiative say the new currency would offer people “another option” amid continuing uncertainty over whether Scotland would be able to keep the pound, describing it as a “Plan B” in the event of any potential “major disruption to the current financial system”.

Already, a handful of businesses across the country are accepting Scotcoins as payment, and Derek Nisbet, the architect of the voluntary scheme, believes more will follow.

“This is a one-shot opportunity for Scotland to truly become an international powerhouse if we can take back the power of our monetary issuance as credit, as opposed to issued debt with interest from privately owned and operated banking interests and cartels,” the Edinburgh venture capitalist explained.

“There has been interest from many people keen to see Scotland become its own entity, with its own financial interest and governance, but these interests should include a complete overhaul of the current financial and banking situation, whereby Scotland is neither governed by the privately owned Bank Of England or by the European Central Bank and Brussels.”

Nisbet, who left his job with a Fortune 500 firm after becoming disenchanted with the financial sector, stressed that the free market will ultimately decide how much the new currency is worth.

However, there are early indications of its modest valuation, with some firms allowing it to be exchanged against the pound. The first, Dornoch Castle Hotel in Sutherland, values one Scotcoin as the equivalence of two pence. Its maiden transaction saw a customer buy a dram of Benriach single malt for 160 Scotcoins.

Nisbet hopes to create a billion Scotcoin economy, with every adult resident entitled to 1,000 units. Existing businesses will be given 5,000 Scotcoins, while charities and start-ups can claim 10,000 and 25,000 respectively in an effort to kick-start its circulation.

He also stressed that the Scotcoin project is “totally non-political” and “not tied to any party or governmental organisation,” adding: “I wish that the Scottish people would be given all the facts, and that is not simply a vote to either stay within the Union or become a small state of Europe.

“There needs to be another option there, to withdraw from the Union and European Union, and create a sovereign state with its own government issued currency as credit. Why is this not an option?”

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