Beyond physics: immersive technologies
Where art and industry collide
Will Foxall is a creative technologist for the South West Creative
Technology Network, based at the Watershed in Bristol, UK
What sparked your interest in physics? When I was about seven, I went on a tour of Jodrell Bank Observatory with my primary s c h o o l h e ad t e a c h e r and h e r k i d s . I r emember loving every bit of it, wanting to know how everything worked and then coming home with a pack of glow-in-the-dark stars with which I covered my bedroom ceiling.
As a sixth-form student I was fortunate enough to have really inspiring maths and physics teachers, Donald Steward and Lisa Greatorex, who made these subjects not only interesting, but also fun. At the same time, Brian Cox started making appearances on BBC’s Horizon and, while I wouldn’t attribute too much of my decision -making proces s to a TV presenter, I guess you could class me as one of the early physics students in the “Brian Cox Ef fec t ”.
What did your physics degree focus on? Did you ever consider a permanent academic career? While I discovered a fascination for particle physics and quantum mechanics in particular, I never lost that childhood wonder about s p a c e . F o r my f i na l - y e a r p r o j e c t , I f o und my s e l f peering into the sky through the University of Bristol’s optical telescope on the roof of the physics department. We were asked to calibrate the sensor and then test it with some o b s e r v a t i o n s , wh i c h g r an t e d u s s p e c i a l a c c e s s t o t h e r o o f a t n i g h t . I r emember g e t t i n g p a r t i c ularly twitchy during consistently cloudy nights i n t h e mon t h b e f o r e o u r p r o j e c t wa s du e b u t we got a window of c lear night s at t he las t minute and managed to secure a f ir st for the project.
A t t h e e nd o f my BS c I f o un d my s e l f k e e n t o apply my knowledge in some different fields. My b e s t mar k s we r e i n t h e p r a c t i c a l e l emen t s of my degree such as my final-year experiments, and so further research was not for me. Retrospectively, perhaps the most useful bits of my degree were the programming and Physics World science-communication modules that the univer sit y was running.
How did your interest in the arts, especially television and film technologies, emerge? I come f r om a ve r y c r ea t i ve f amily. My par en t s a r e b o t h a r t t e a c h e r s t u r n e d p h o t o g r a p h e r a n d graphic designer, and my sister has worked with a host of performing-arts organizations. I spent my teenage years playing music and creating shor t f i lms with my f r iends.
After graduating from university, I was looking for opportunities that could use the analytical approach gained from my physics d e g r e e , wh i l e r e c o nn e c t i n g w i t h t h e a r t s t ha t I enjoyed as a teenager. As a result, I joined Bristol’s television industry as a runner and worked my way up through a number of technical roles, looking after some exciting natur al his t or y shows f or t he BBC and mult i screen cinemas in Japan.
When 360 video and VR began to boom, I started app development that introduced me to some of the innovative creative technology work that happens in Bristol.
What does your current role as “creative technologist” entail? What projects are you working on at the moment? The South West Creative Technology Network is a partnership between four universities (UWE, Bath Spa, Falmouth and Plymouth) as well as the Watershed media centre in Bristol and the Kaleider production studio in Exeter. It’s a knowledgeexchange programme that creates connections across academia and industry to c r eate innovat ion in t hr ee ar eas of in t er es t ; immersion, automation and data. As a crea t i ve t echnolog i s t , I ge t invol ved in al l sor t s of fascinating conversations with research fellows and prototypers working on these themes. I try to identify the technical hurdles they may encounter and then help work out the best route to tackle them as they ar ise.
The projects we’re working on include the use of motion-capture data to improve mobility in the elderly, the creation of new musical instruments in virtual reality and extending the story of a theatrical performance beyond the confines of the stage.
How has your physics background been helpful in your work, i f at all? I’d say that, in particular, I improved two skills through studying physics, and they have been invaluable to my career. First, a solid understanding of the core concepts that physics is built on, whether that’s mathematical methods or how to derive equations. Second, and the most transferable skill, is the ability to break a problem down into a variety of approaches and then systematically solve it.
Any advice for today’s students? If you have an idea of where you want your interest s to take you, then st ick to that goal and go for it. That’s what got me to the univ e r s i t y I wan t e d t o g o t o , s t u d y i n g t h e d e g r e e I picked. However, if you don’t, that’s where it gets really exciting; most of my decisions since graduating have been what I consider t h e “ b e s t c h o i c e a v a i l ab l e t o me a t t h e t i me”, wh i c h ha s l e d me t o whe r e I am now. And I ’m ver y happy with that!
Physics World Careers 2020
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