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Blog posts from August 2012

Week 377

Week 377 in the studio. There were no week notes last week because nobody reminded Jack. The fault lies with all of us really, and we’re all feeling the consequence of our actions. Jack is well known for writing the best week notes.

Last week, to get you up to speed, saw a great reshuffle of desks. I am now so far away from Alex Javis, who I previously sat opposite, that I can barely see him. Joe’s eyebrows are also now out of my peripheral view. It’s a lot easier to concentrate on my screen down this end of the office, but I sure am going to miss those eyebrows. The reason for this shuffle is that we are taking some new people in to help with a couple of big projects. Our office has three new desks to accommodate all these bodies, which include Phil “Send me back to the BRIG” Gyford, Matt “another Matt” Walton, Saar “Phil’s not the only hardware guy in town” Drimer and Neil Usher (no relation to actual Usher (maybe some relation? (no, not really))).

Aside from acclimatising to our new desks this week goes like this:

Work on BERG Cloud and Little Printer continues, James Darling has done ALL HIS TICKETS. You go, James Darling. This week he embarks on another ‘too secret for week notes’ bit of BERG Cloud. Nick is doing more EMC work on the Bridge. He is also (in his spare time) hacking an absolutely sick iPhone prototype app for Little Printer. We have to wait for him to demo it but there are whispers that it is, as Jack would say, “AMAZEBALLS”. This week Matt Webb is stacking the papes, pressing the flesh, and other glamorous sounding ways of saying “having meetings”. He is also filling in for Simon as best he can whilst Simon is on holiday. I am working on developer tools for publishers and hackers who want to make Little Printer publications. Last week I delivered a Printer to Lanyrd so they can test their publication and have a go with our developer tools alpha. I’m also putting our render stack through it’s paces sending weird and wonderful publications that have been sent in by eager developers around the world. Last week I discovered that Little Printer can speak Hebrew, and at the weekend I tested the SVG->PNG element of Webkit with great results. If you’ve got an idea for a publication, here’s the address

Matt Jones, Joe Malia, Neil Usher (…usher …usher), Saar Drimer and Jack Schulze are working on various Sinawava projects. Tom and Durrell are making regular appearances at the studio for this work too. When BERG week notes jumps the shark, I hope someone has the wherewithal to give those guys a spin-off series. Matt Jones is also going to see some Paralympics on Friday. Saar is getting a lot of fun looking electrical components in the post. It’s good to see someone challenging Andy’s post monopoly finally.

Matt Jones and Jack are also working on an unpronounceable project. It’s spelt Paiute, if anyone would like to do an audioboo of how it’s actually pronounced here is my attempt: You can hear in my inflection that I am not at all sure that I’ve got it right.

Denise, Alex and Phil Gyford are doing design work for Saguaro. This involves a lot of experimenting with code and graphics. Denise and Alex are also doing a bit of design work for BERG Cloud.

Helen is doing numbers, contracts and payroll. She has great nail varnish on today, a ‘very now’ minty green that I reckon is probably made by Barry M. I read a great article about the cosmetics brand Barry M the other day. The guy that founded it is actually called Barry.

Andy is in India this week, he is communicating with us via a Little Printer on his desk though, much to my delight. Timo remains in the wilderness, advancing all of human knowledge with his PhD. Kari is still on maternity leave. I’m hoping she’ll swing by the studio soon, this weekend she was definitely at the Green Belt festival.

That’s your lot. Send me your Audioboos though, for the good of the studio.

Week 375

Oh I don’t know.

Something must have happened this week, right?

Little Printer available for pre-orders now!

We’re celebrating! Little Printer is available for pre-orders from today.

* Read the blog post announcing pre-orders
* Check out new features on the product page
* Pre-order Little Printer!

This is an incredible feeling.

I love this studio. Awesome work, folks.

Friday Links

This week we travel to Mars vicariously through the Curiosity Rover.

Firstly, a panorama!

Secondly, a GIF!

And let’s not forget about the Opportunity rover which has been there since 2004.
One of the many panoramas it sent back:

Lastly, a sunset sent home by the Spirit rover in 2005, and I reiterate … FROM MARS!!

Strange times are these in which we live. Exciting too.

N.B. Thanks to for fact straightening. Via Alice Bartlett. And Andy Huntington received an honourable mention for providing much moral support during the curation of these links.

Week 374

“It would appear that ‘the future has taken root in the present.” (1) “The hardest thing is deciding what I should tell you and what not to.” (2)

Matthew, Jack and Matt J are out of the studio today to “take a deep breath of life and consider how it should be lived” (3) because “your focus determines your reality” (4) and these are the focus pullers of BERG.

Everyone else is seated around a long red table for our weekly catch-up, proclaiming what the week ahead will bring. “It’s funny how different things look, depending on where you sit.” (5)

Simon continues to project manage LP, Lamotte et al. with aplomb, deftly applying his “very particular set of skills; skills acquired over a very long career” (6) wherever required.

Alice harnesses “the world of the electron and the switch; the beauty of the baud” (7) to “prepare something special” (8) for users of LP. Particularly, dev tools and the shop. “It’s a beautiful system.” (9) “Cue the cheesy inspirational music.” (10)

On Monday and Tuesday James worked hard on LP. For the remainder of the week he’ll be at a festival of music in Winchester. For those of you that don’t know, Winchester “is a major party town” (11) and home to the “best party ever!” (12) I may be exaggerating but it does sound like it will be a good one.

Alex has taken the week off work to perform live at the festival. He DJ’s with a crew known as ‘Merk Chicken’, and “when (people) hear the music, (they) just can’t make their feet behave.” (13) Their sets are garnering an ardent following. Keep an eye out for them.

Anyway “let’s forget about the music right now”. (14) Elsewhere in the studio, Nick is exploring the LP code mines to see “just how deep the rabbit-hole goes” (15)

Andy is holding a soldering iron and performing intricate open-heart surgery on LP. “It’s kind of a delicate situation,” (16) I wouldn’t disturb him if I were you.

Denise is fine-tuning the print and pixels that form the LP launch material, preparing for the day that it will be “out there properly, in the public domain.” (17)

Helen is tending to the responsibilities associated with a studio manager in the second week of the month. She also watched live Olympic hockey this week, which sounds like tremendous fun, in spite of Team GB dramatic loss. Personally, “I’m much better at video hockey” (18) but I don’t think it qualifies as an official part of the worlds biggest sports festival. Yet.

Ruth and Phillip are doing heroic things with code, character animation and late nights. It all “sounds like hard work to me.” (19) Looking forward to the end-of-phase presentation on Friday.

Fraser is new to the studio! “Welcome to ‘The Program'” (20) Fraser. He’ll be writing copy for LP and manning the customer services desk after launch.

Nationally, eyeballs are fixed on the Olympics because “if you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.” (21) And everyone’s mood seems buoyant. “More please” (22)

“That’s the way it crumbles… cookie-wise.” (23)

The quotes peppering this update are taken from a totally arbitrary selection of movies. How many did you get?

1. Excalibur (1981)
2. The Terminator (1984)
3. Man of La Mancha (1972)
4. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
5. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
6. Taken (2008)
7. Hackers (1995)
8. The Illusionist (2006)
9. The Net (1995)
10. Bruce Almighty (2003)
11. Cabin Fever (2002)
12. 21 Jump Street (2012)
13. Grease (1978)
14. Kickboxer (1989)
15. The Matrix (1999)
16. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
17. In the Loop (2009)
18. Big (1988)
19. Clue (1985)
20. The Bourne Legacy (2012)
21. Grease (1978)
22. The Simpsons Movie (2007)
23. The Apartment (1960)

Week 373

Mid-week notes.

This is week 373 and the first week of the Olympics in London. The roads are a little clearer, public transport eerily quiet and everyone is cycling home like they’re Wiggo.

The studio is roughly 50/50 working on Lamotte and Little Printer. We have the enjoyable, continuing presence of folk over from the States to progress the technical aspects of Lamotte in parallel with the design being lead by Joe. Much tea is flowing.

Little Printer is an extraordinary, but non-competitive game of Downfall, with the red team working on the shop, BERG Cloud functionality and some behind the scenes delight. The green team are testing and identifying issues with hardware, tidying embedded software and cranking the supply chain handle. We have to make sure the right number of the right coloured balls fall in the right order. Right.

Jones has been out speaking this morning at Hackney House and is generally on call for Lamotte. He’s been passing large volumes of text to Jack, which Jack will be reciprocating.

After a fallow patch we’ve hit on a rich seam of birthdays featuring Jack and Denise. Helen, while juggling costs, LP budgets and general studio management has not shown any lack of determination when it comes to celebratory cup cakes. Exceptional.

Guardian Headliner: The newspaper that looks back at you…

Headliner is an experiment in online reading that BERG conducted in a short project with The Guardian. It uses face detection and term extraction to create “a newspaper that looks back at you”

Headliner: Final Prototype

It’s part of a series of experiments and prototypes that they are initiating with internal and external teams. You can try it for yourself here:

Headliner: Final Prototype

Jack led the project and we got a dream-team of past collaborators to work with on it: Phil Gyford, who had already done loads of thoughtful designing of new reading experiences for the Guardian with his ‘Today’s Guardian‘ project, and brilliant designer James King who we had worked with previously on the Here & There Maps.

I asked Jack, Phil and James to share their thoughts about the process and the prototype:

Jack Schulze:

Faces come up in News articles a lot, editors exercise artistry in picking photos of politicians or public figures at their most desperate. Subjects caught glancing in the wrong direction or grimacing are used to great effect and drama alongside headlines.

Headliner makes use of face detection to highlight the eyes in news photographs. It adds a second lens to the existing photo, dramatising and exaggerating the subject. It allows audiences to read more meaning into the headline and context.

Headliner: Final Prototype

Graphically Headliner departs from the graphic rules and constraints news has inherited from print. It references the domain’s aesthetic through typography but adopts a set of behaviours and structures only available in browsers and on the web.

Phil Gyford:

We wanted to retain much of what makes Today’s Guardian a good reading experience but find more in the text and images that we could use to make it less dry. We decided to rely solely on the material we can get from the Guardian’s API, alongside other free services and software.

We looked at various ways of extracting useful data from the text of articles. It had been some years since I’d last dabbled with term extraction and I was surprised that it didn’t seem wildly better than I remembered. We settled on using the free Calais API to pull useful terms out of articles, but it’s quite hit and miss — some places and peoples’ names that seem obvious to us are missed, and other words are erroneously identified as significant. But it gave us a little something extra which we could use to treat text, and also to guess at what an article was about: we could guess whether an article was focused on a person or a place, for example.

We wanted to do more with the articles’ images and focusing on faces seemed most interesting. We initially used the API to identify faces in the images and, in particular, the eyes. This worked really well, and with a bit of rotating and cropping using PIL we could easily make inevitably small pictures of eyes. (All the article text and images are pre-processed periodically on the back-end using Python, to create a largely static and fast front-end that just uses HTML, CSS and JavaScript.)

Antero experiments

Unfortunately for us were bought by Facebook and promptly announced the imminent closure of their API. We replaced it with OpenCV using Python, which is trickier, and we don’t yet have it working quite as well as’s detection did, but it’s a good, free, alternative under our control.

Enlarging the cropped eye images looked great: eyes that seemed guilty or angry or surprised, emphasising the choices of picture editors, stared out at you below a headline. We tried giving these images a halftone effect, to emphasise the newspaper printing context of the stories, but unfortunately it didn’t work well with such tiny source images. (Here’s the code for the half toning effect though.)

Headliner: Early Graphic Studies

Browsers treated the drastically zoomed images differently. Chrome and Safari tried to smooth the grossly enlarged images out, which sometimes worked well, but we liked the effect in Firefox, which we could force to show the now-huge pixels using `image-rendering: -moz-crisp-edges;`. The chunky pixels made a feature of the cropped portions of images being so small, and we wanted to show this very raw material on all browsers. This was easily done on the front-end using the excellent Close Pixelate JavaScript.

If we didn’t have any detected eyes to use, we didn’t only want to enlarge the supplied photo — we wanted some variety and to use more of the data we’d extracted from the text. So, if we’d determined that the article was probably focused on a place, we used Google’s Static Maps API to display a satellite image centred on the location Calais had identified.

Headliner: Final Prototype

We put all that together with a front-end based, for speed, on the original Today’s Guardian code, but heavily tweaked. We make images as big as we possibly can — take advantage of that huge monitor! — and enlarge the headlines (with the help of FitText) to make the whole thing more colourful and lively, and an interesting browsing experience.

James King:

To start with, we were most interested in how we might integrate advertisements more closely into the fabric of the news itself. Directing the readers attention towards advertising is a tricky problem to deal with.

Headliner: Design Development

One of the more fanciful ideas we came up with was to integrate eye-tracking into the newspaper (with support for webcams) so that it would respond to your gaze and serve up contextually relevant ads based on what you were reading at any particular moment.

Headliner: Design Development

This idea didn’t get much further than a brief feasibility discussion with Phil who determined that, given the tight deadline, building this would be unlikely! What did survive however, was the idea that the newspaper looks back at you.

Eyes are always interesting. Early on, we experimented with cropping a news photo closely around the eyes and presenting it alongside a headline. This had quite a dramatic effect.

Headliner: Design Development

In the same way that a news headline can often grab the attention but remain ambiguous, these “eye crops” of news photos could convey emotion but not the whole story. Who the eyes belong to, where the photo is taken and other details remain hidden.

Headliner: Design Development

In the same way that we were summarising the image, we thought about summarising the story, to see if we could boil a long story down to a digestible 500 words. So we investigated some auto-summarising tools only to find that they didn’t do such a good job of selecting the essence of a story.

Headliner: Design Development

Perhaps they take a lot of customisation, or need to be trained with the the right vocabulary, but often the output would be comical or nonsensical. We did discover that Open Calais did a reasonably reliable job of selecting phrases within text and guessing whether it referred to a person, a place, an organisation etc. While we felt that Open Calais wasn’t good enough to draw inferences from the article, we felt we could use it to emphasising important phrases in the headlines and standfirsts.

Typographically, it made sense to use Guardian Egyptian for the headlines, although we did explore some other alternatives such as Carter One – a lovely script face available as a free Google font.

Headliner was a two-week experiment to explore the graphic possibilities of machine-learning and computer vision applied to content.

Not everything works all the time, it’s a prototype after all – but it hints at some interesting directions for new types of visual presentation where designers, photo editors and writers work with algorithms as part of their creative toolbox.

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