A Brighton future for new media

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The seaside town best known for its universities, regal promenade and somewhat Bohemian atmosphere looks set

to become one of the country's leading centres for digital technology and arts development.

Andy Wasley reports.

Pioneering innovation and exceptional creativity, combined with significant investment from both the public and the private sectors, may soon establish Brighton as the "capital" of the multimedia generation.

One major player in the bid to achieve digital fame is the Brighton Media Centre. Set up in the early Nineties, as the nation slipped out of recession, the BMC has consistently proved itself instrumental to the town's multimedia expansion. More than 30 companies are currently based at the BMC, from Internet solutions specialists and CD-Rom designers to freelance IT consultants, all working on the cutting edge of media advancement.

Vitamin, a new media and software development company based at the BMC, has recently made an impressive breakthrough in Web site design and management. Taking standard design and layout techniques beyond their usual remit, the company has developed highly advanced document and e-mail management systems, currently being evaluated for IBM application. This, combined with work on "virtual private networks)" - enabling people in remote areas to keep in touch with offices and employers - has established Vitamin as a leader in its field.

The BMC was also recently responsible for a collaboration between a team of designers, Web programmers and an independent film-making unit which resulted in a ground-breaking live Internet link-up of a rare black bald- headed eagle's nest in Majorca. This was possible only because of the unique way in which the BMC operates.

"As the Majorca project illustrates, housing such a diverse range of companies and equipment under the one roof enables people to cross the boundaries between the various multimedia disciplines," explains Ian Elwick, BMC's development manager. "We've pulled together a previously fragmented industry and created an entire media community."

As well as putting Brighton on the map as a successful model for others involved in new media, the BMC's approach has attracted considerable interest from the business community and government alike. One aspect in particular has impressed itself upon potential investors: the Property Portfolio Initiative. Pioneered by the BMC, it involves investment in existing empty properties, wiring them up for multimedia purposes and generating incomes from rents charged. "This way we're furthering the cause of digital media experimentation at the same time as generating money to plough back into those activities," Elwick says.

With funding from traditional sources such as the Arts Council increasingly difficult to obtain, this concept of "investment in innovation" has the potential to transform the funding of the new media industry. So much so, in fact, that the Government has set up a task force, headed by Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, to examine and implement a strategy of investment in cultural initiatives.

Wiring up buildings obtained by the BMC will be undertaken by MediaLan, a Brighton-based project which aims to create a high-speed local area network to link offices, schools and, eventually homes and public spaces. The BMC headquarters has already been wired up using "broadband" or "fast" wiring, which ensures that a complete spectrum of multimedia communication channels - including phone and fax modems, the Internet, e-mail and digital TV - can all be accessed at the touch of a button.

"It's all about making these new media channels available to people," says David Taylor, of Pavillion, an Internet service provider. "[This year] should see the project move out of its formative years into something more physical. The technological processes for doing so are in place; we just need the hardware and funding to continue."

With the infrastructure component of the MediaLan trial largely completed, emphasis now will turn to creating the network's content. A new media form emerging at the midpoint of the convergence of television, Internet and CD-Rom technologies will form the backbone of any MediaLan productions. High-quality graphics combined with two-way video and audio interaction could create an eye-opening example of the possibilities of multimedia.

This year's central project will be to produce the Virtual Festival, an interactive version of the Brighton Festival. This will be released as a video package or screened on local cable networks, depending upon demand and interest from investors.

"This represents our trial for future, more ambitious ideas," says Jonny Ship, strategic development director at MediaLan. "If it all goes to plan, this will generate enough of a buzz to bring in outside funding."

The MediaLan venture is to be tested in the Brighton region, but its co-ordinators are keen to point out that, ultimately, the project is aimed at the international market. "We hope our systems will one day be used as the standard delivery mechanism for electronic media globally," says David Taylor.

MediaLan is not the only Brighton-based project to think globally. As well as being involved in the project, Taylor is working with Ericsson to develop a system of live interaction between Internet and telephony technologies. "It's about moulding the various electronic processes into one huge communication mass," he says.

The Sussex-based Multistream Systems is also working on an Internet server that is designed to be significantly faster and more complex than existing server technologies. Known as the "Jedi", it has already attracted interest from major telecommunications and computing companies.

With such energy, investment and innovation pouring into Brighton's new media community, it is not surprising that the town is becoming something of a mecca for those wishing to gain a foothold in the the industry. Nicole Veash, a trainee writer with a small travel publication, says that the town has so much more to offer than the more traditional hubs of media training such as Manchester and London. "Everyone's got time for you here, whatever your ideas or experience. There's always room for something new."

Provided that the imagination, ingenuity and funding continue to flow, Brighton looks well placed to become Britain's new media capital.