Digital World Research Centre: exploring the interplay between media content, platform and experience
DWRC brings together engineering, communication, social science, business, design and arts to work on media innovation projects that have a concrete impact on society and culture.
The Digital World Research Centre (DWRC) is a research network within the University of Surrey, carrying out new media innovation projects with social and cultural benefit. They conduct interdisciplinary research into new media platforms, content and experiences, and strive to commercialise and apply the findings of research in society.
Their work is focused on understanding new forms of digital media production and consumption, and developing ways of supporting them with novel media genres, formats, devices and services.
Created in 1998 as a multi-disciplinary research centre, the DWRC aims to bring together a diversity of internal and external partners for their innovation projects:
“Although I belong to the Department of Music and Media organisationally, I sit physically in The Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering,” says Director of the DWRC David Frohlich. “Furthermore, the people I work with come from all three Faculties at Surrey, including Health and Medical sciences, Engineering and Physical Sciences, and Arts and Social Sciences.”
When David joined the Centre in 2005, he introduced innovation to the group as well as a new way of working involving design research:
“I had been working with HP Labs as a user researcher, but I got increasingly involved with design – especially design of new technology prototypes. So I started out doing studies of technology use, but these naturally led onto designing, building and testing prototypes in the wild.”
Design research like this can be about research-for-design or research-through-design. DWRC does both, depending on the type of project.
On the Community-generated media for the next billion project for example, research-for-design allowed them to investigate the creative use of camera phones in rural South Africa. The aim was to design a mobile digital storytelling system (the Com-Me toolkit) for non-textual communication.
While on the Interactive Newsprint project, they did research-through-design by co-designing and creating a series of interacting print prototypes with a local community. Here the team explored the affordances of ‘audio paper’ for printed community news.
Platforms, content and experiences
For David, media innovation “has always been about trying to invent a new media form, a new medium if you like, for communication”. DWRC is working on platforms, content and experiences at the same time, while most centres are working on only one of these. Innovation should involve those three, as working on only one at the time overlooks the interaction between these fundamental properties of media systems.
This interaction can be seen at the beginning of each new media form, according to David. In the case of cinema for example, it was not only a platform invention for recording and playing moving images with sound:
“Cinema also required new kinds of ‘cinematography’ in the making of filmic content as opposed to just recording plays. Content changed from silent movies to ‘talkies’ as sound was added to the platform. The experience of making and watching films depends on these interactions, and could in turn be used to drive changes in either platform or content.”
David and his team are currently applying this principle in a new project to define Next Generation Paper. They are conducting studies of optical and printed electronic technology for augmenting books alongside the making of new augmented book content for travel and tourism.
Research with concrete results
The projects are usually research rather than development projects, which results in technological interventions that reveal new insights about how people do things with media – such as communicate, keep in touch, share, remember, understand.
However, Digital World is also interested in the business side of media as well, because business factors shape innovation just as much or maybe even more than technology does:
“Not having a business model that works is often a barrier to the application of new media innovations in the real world. Research projects can come up with a great prototype which meets an unmet user need, but this will just die unless a company is able to develop and sell it at a profit.”
Specifically, in the Next Generation Paper project, the business school is also involved:
“I’m very pleased about that, because it means we will be able to understand the markets for this technology and use that understanding to shape the technology itself.”
Business shaping innovation
He believes the best projects are those that enable new media behaviour that people enjoy and benefit from in some way. And that companies later incorporate into their products and services:
“We therefore tend to conceive and conduct projects nowadays with industrial and third sector partners who can make use of the insights of research in their business activities.”
The DWRC has received industrial funding from companies such as Vodafone, Microsoft, Kodak, British Telecom, Orange, Hewlett Packard and Fujitsu, as well as from smaller creative industry and third sector organisations.