>> Monday, April 30, 2007
Robin Back and Johnny Byrne started the company BEPL in 1989 to make interactive stories for television initially hosted on CD-i. BEPL is short for Backs Electronic Publishing Limited. Their first published CD-i title was "Anne Willan presents the Food of France". When it was first released in 1992 in the USA, it broke new ground with animated DYUV sequences, attract-mode programming, and interactive credits. BEPL was credited with its first EMMA award in recognition of these achievements. Ofcourse now we remember BEPL for offering the community two free prototype CD-i games, Solitaire and Tic-Tac-Toe. More on these games later; now we have a look at the background of BEPL.
The disc "Foods of France" is in two parts, each linked with the other. On the one hand there are the recipes themselves, carefully divided into categories such as main dishes, soups, desserts and so on. Each recipe is illustrated and Anne herself discusses the qualities of each ingredient in turn and talks the viewer through every stage. The viewer can jump from page to page, recipe to recipe, category to category and also straight to the regional tours, the best thing to do whilst something is cooking!
In 1992 BEPL was commissioned to engineer two CD-i titles for Philips "Schools 2000" project, covering aspects of science and mathematics related to Key Stages 1 and 2 of the National Curriculum. "Space Safari" teaches about animals and plants. It requires the user to help the captain of an alien spaceship in collecting plants and animals from Earth, classifying them and then finding them suitable habitats on a new planet.
The RNIB project was to create a pilot, digitised (CD-delivered) alternative to the Talking Books on tape that RNIB members have known and loved for many years. In essence BEPL packed some 16 hours of continuous audio tracks onto one CD-i formatted disc. However, access to this material is governed by special copyright considerations so we used special infra-red commands on a remote controller to makes sure the discs could not be heard by anybody who shouldn't. Clever programming but it was a bit too close to a retail format to satisfy the rights holders and so we understand a different digitising formula from Sweden, has been adopted.
In 1996, plans were made to update the then current visitor's centre interactive laserdisk programmes as these were getting a little long in the tooth and in some areas were no longer accurate. The kiosks had been enthusiastically received by visitors, especially school-children and others on formal educational visits, so the challenge was on to do better! In conjunction with First Information Group plc (regrettably now defunct), BEPL decided the most efficient method of achieving the required upgrade within budget was to use CD-i as the host platform and integrate Microtouch controllers into the existing Sony touchscreen monitors. The programme starts with a silent rolling demo of what is on the disc, including the 'board' game and detailed question sets, and invites users to touch the screen to start the programme. Once this happens, the user is introduced to the various methods of generating electrical power with particular emphasis on the requirements, benefits (and pitfalls) and implications of nuclear power generation. The dice game invites users to reply to questions correctly and moves their counter round the board appropriately. If questions are wrongly answered - you're out!
From the Philips Magazine, 'CD-i Matters', Issue 6 September 1997: "...BSM's 'Qualified Fleet Driving Training Programme' on CD-i sharpens drivers wits with simulations of real-life motoring hazards, in which they can interactively take part. Drivers can train anywhere, anytime and the player stores information on the driver's reactions for later evaluation..."
Measurement and evaluation of results are a key part of all BEPL training programmes. The old adage: "What gets measured gets done" applies even more strongly when Training budgets are under pressure to produce quantifiable results. Whether on CD-i or CD-ROM or even on bespoke games kiosks such as the Mouseketeers programme for Whitbread Family Inns, it is important to be able to see how programmes are used in the real world. It is of course possible to have someone sit and watch what's going on - but its much more effective to have the machine do the measuring. Anyway - what are machines for? The clever part about this programme and its first cousin completed in July 1997, is the timing of the hazard recognition 'windows'. Users have almost exactly the same time as they do in real life to identify and react to a potential hazard on the road. As we all know these can range from routine traffic lights to small children suddenly running out in front of you. The programme certainly keeps the viewer alert as well as keeping track of how good he or she is at recognising danger.
In 1997, BEPL developed and remade a CD-i promotion disc for Antec International, who are important suppliers of pesticides, virucides and disinfectants to the agricultural industry worldwide. Various foreign language versions have been added including Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin chinese. Of particular note was the creation of a Website Index - not a search engine but a real index and thus much quicker to locate things. Another first for Antec and in regular use on their site.
In 1999, CD-i refused to die despite numerous funerals. This platform was used to make an interactive discovery game for PwC called 'Pursue'. Mixing of real-time video laid over virtual reality office environments called for new programming techniques, not to mention video-making. Also in 2000, after extensive use on CD-i, BEPL remade 'Pursue' on DVD-ROM. The DVD platform itself cannot handle a tenth of the interactivity of CD-i so the DVD-ROM route was chosen but with DVD video quality.