First move in a global game plan

January 9, 1998

Masoud Yazdani (right) tells Claire Neesham how he plans to build a rival to the MIT Media Lab from a new base in Bristol

Building, electrical wiring and foundations are just some of the topics touched on during a conversation with Masoud Yazdani, the former senior lecturer from the computer science department at the University of Exeter.

Yazdani's interest in construction is twofold. First, he has just watched a plot of land on the outskirts of Bristol develop from a muddy patch into the bricks and mortar that will become his home - and, he hopes, contain the double electrical sockets requested. Second, and perhaps more important, Yazdani has been given the task of developing a new research laboratory in the University of the West of England's faculty of art, media and design. From the start of January he has held the new post of chair of digital media and associate dean (postgraduate studies).

Yazdani is excited by the prospect of starting with a clean slate but he points out that there is a sense of deja vu with his appointment to a new department. "I came to Exeter in 1981 as a lecturer in the computer science department."

He adds that at that time the department was new, so he witnessed the birth of computer science as a distinct discipline within the university. He has also seen the department develop to become one of the top ten computer science departments in the country - according to The Good University Guide in The Times last May. It is, perhaps, an ironic coincidence that his departure coincided with the University of Exeter's decision to merge the computer science department with engineering.

Now he hopes to build a top ten digital media department at the University of the West of England in Bristol. His vision goes further than British academic acclaim. He sees himself in direct competition with organisations such as the Media Lab at MIT in Massachusetts. So what makes him believe that he can succeed on such an international scale? What projects will propel the digital media department at the university into the top research rankings? And how is he going to fund this project?

To answer the last question first, he explains how his new department already has a Pounds 1 million budget for the next three years, partly funded by the Foresight Challenge fund. Two strong points were identified by funders as computer games and art & design - areas that will be addressed by the new department.The department's construction has been helped by a generous donation from the computing and printing industry.

One of the first projects that he and his eight full-time researchers will pursue is the development of a printing technique that produces 12-colour separations rather than the usual four, and which does not use dots. This type of work could prove interesting to commercial neighbours such as Hewlett Packard. Although he points out that the department itself also intends to show its business acumen; he has already applied for a patent to cover certain aspects of the printing research. As he says: "We are in the ideas market."

A search on the Web reveals that Yazdani does not lack for ideas, and some that have spawned from his previous research interests in areas such as postmodern authorship, computer supported co-operative learning and language visualisation will play a part in other aspects of the department's research and postgraduate teaching. His focus on computer games will be informed by the perspective that these digital artifacts are the new novel. Educational software is another area that he wants the department to explore. In previous projects he has considered the potential of virtual universities, for instance. A problem that may affect learning in virtual universities and indeed any international communication using the Internet and the Web has exercised him for several years - the lack of a universal language. He admits to having a personal interest in this issue as he was brought up in Iran. English is his second language, so he is well aware of how difficult it can be to communicate when those communicating speak different languages.

To overcome such difficulties Yazdani and colleagues at Exeter have explored the idea of creating a visual language - a language of icons. To illustrate this idea he pulls out a copy of The Wordless Travel Book by Jonathon Meader, which uses pictures to illustrate the traveller's needs rather than providing phrases. He points out, however, that he uses this phrase book more as an illustration of his idea, than the foundation upon which his research project is built. In fact, Yazdani and his colleagues at Exeter were looking at North American Indian iconic languages as inspiration for their international electronic iconic communication medium.

Although he feels a particular attachment to this research. he admits that, so far, the project has failed to win significant funding. But he remains undeterred and says that his research assistant at the university will be given this subject as one of their research topics. Indeed, in some ways one feels that he is as enthralled in his search for this language, as he would be in the final product.

This can probably be accounted for by his interest in the process of making things, rather than the artifacts used at the start or created at the finish of a project. This interest is highlighted in his theories on authorship, and also well illustrated by another of the department's projects - the electronic archiving of the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection.

"We want to create digitally a record of how each of the artifacts are made - the process," Yazdani says .

He certainly seems to have ambitious plans for the department, but he does not see his department working in isolation, or even in competition with other British research groups. Collaboration seems to be at the core of all the proposed projects. Hewlett-Packard and the Victoria and Albert Museum are just two examples of potential partners. He says that his department will work with the computer science department at the University of Bristol on the development of the software tools needed to make projects such as the digital archive work. In addition, he has plans to work with the London Film and Television School, and also with his former colleagues both at the University of Exeter and at Plymouth University's school of art and design based at Exeter where he already has many collaborators.

"It is not a case of British universities competing with each other, but collaborating to compete internationally," he says. With this kind of attitude he hopes to build the department as swiftly as the builders on the outskirts of Bristol constructed his house. Given the right circumstances he may achieve his dream - and give MIT's Media Lab a run for its money.

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