Management: How to give a business that creative edge

Forward-looking hi-tech companies are forging links with the next generation of creative talent. Hugh Aldersley-Williams reports on the fruits of two such tie-ups
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One day soon, David Bowie will step on to a stage and be joined by a number of other performers -older David Bowies, a David Bowie child, a female Bowie. The real Bowie will act and interact with his virtual other selves.

Nothing strange in that. It's the sort of thing we expect from Bowie. What is strange is that big business and government will be among the audience.

Forward-thinking companies are moving to guarantee their seats in the front row of the media revolution by building links with the next generation of creatives. The Bowie project comes from Createc, a creative media arts and technology centre just opened at the National Film and Television School located at the old Ealing Studios, with support from businesses such as Philips, ICL and television companies. In a similar vein, Eidos, the company that brought you the wildly successful computer game Tombraider, has launched a graduate scholarship scheme.

The trend is echoed in the Government's autumn Bill to establish a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Nesta's aim is to stimulate the "creative economy" by supporting projects where the arts and technology cross over and which might spark innovations in broadcasting, multimedia and other industries.

Corporate membership is one option being considered for raising funds. In return, companies would have early knowledge of, or rights to, the brightest ideas.

Working in collaboration with other academic institutions and hi-tech businesses, Createc aims to develop new products and markets by drawing together artists, technologists, producers and others. Despite the emphasis on technology, Createc hopes to maintain Britain's leading position in media arts by adhering to traditional values of storytelling and image- making rather than indulging techno fancies.

In computer-animated film sequences, for example, realism has been a holy grail, although it requires expensive computers. But Createc's Andrew Berand believes as much can be achieved by focusing on behaviour rather than appearances.

One project is looking at improving the lip synch on computer-generated characters by matching computer recognition of phonemes to the generation of the appropriate facial changes. This emphasis on behavioural rather than pictorial realism could produce more absorbing entertainment as well as benefits such as more effective agents for screen navigation. Other projects are investigating everything from interactive opera to multimedia family albums.

Bill Dennay, a consultant to Quantel, explains the reason for his company's interest. "Quantel's traditional strength has been making sure that creative people can do creative things with high technology without the technology getting in the way. But in the past few years, there has been such a rapid advance that we find ourselves surprised at just how creative it is possible to be."

The Createc sponsorship encourages development of the technology in directions best suited to creative users. "We bring our expertise, but also our questions," says Dennay. "The return is greater awareness of Quantel, but also having those questions answered."

The Eidos scholarship scheme which began last year selected students from a wide range of disciplines, their common interest being in the potential for multimedia to enhance their study projects. Eidos hopes that the quality and diversity of the student projects will eventually push general expectations of new media technologies. The scheme is to continue this academic year.

The 18 students in the first intake included fashion designers, linguists and musicians from institutions as varied as Imperial College, Oxford University and the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts.

Lawyer Paul Armstrong looked at intellectual property protection measures suited to new media such as intelligent agents that will automatically track copyright material. English graduate Heather Ummel explored how computers might help to analyse handwriting styles in order to date ancient manuscripts. Designer Bryn Bache examined the potential for intuitive multi-sensory interaction with technological products making use of the phenomenon of synesthesia - the effect whereby some people connect the worlds of colour, shape, smell and sound.

The focus for some has been on sound and animation techniques clearly relevant to computer games. Then again, Oxford English student Flavia Kenyon's drama project on "Virtual Beckett" clearly has less immediate application within Eidos.

"Some ideas directly help our bottom line. In the longer term, it's slightly more intangible, but Eidos people will become exposed to new ideas much sooner than they would otherwise," says technical director, Simon Protheroe.

The company's growth increasingly depends not on the development of its technology but of the "brands" generated from its creative use.

The heroine of Tombraider, Lara Croft, is one example of a character that might appear and develop across a range of additional media. "These intellectual properties form the core of our new business," according to Protheroe.