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Regrowing our economy is more than just a game

Great British engineering achievements come in all shapes and sizes but most people would probably choose to name the steam engine, Concorde or Brunel’s railways, ships and bridges over a computer games machine.

However, in recognising the Microsoft Research Cambridge team’s groundbreaking work on the Kinect motion-capture controller with the UK’s most prestigious innovation prize, the Royal Academy of Engineering has highlighted how British engineers are genuinely changing the world in ways that deserve more credit.

Regardless of its merits as a game controller, Kinect is revolutionising what can be done with 3D video and computer interfacing, creating huge potential in the fields of robotics, communication, security, healthcare and, of course, entertainment.

The technology that Kinect spawns will change the way we think about and use computers and video. It’s already rapidly surpassing equipment that until just a few months ago seemed cutting edge.

The Engineer recently attended a press event where a software company demonstrated its achievements in interactive 3D video. The most impressive aspect of the show saw a computerised character on a cinema screen seemingly respond to the voice and movement of the presenter.

But on realising that the character was being controlled by a person at the back of the room in a motion-capture suit, and not responding to a Kinect-like camera that could recognise the movement of any person, it suddenly seemed like yesterday’s news.

Although the idea and much of the groundwork for Kinect came from a US firm (and the device itself is presumably manufactured in the Far East), this tremendous breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible without the work of five engineers and scientists in Britain.

How many of the 10 million-plus Kinect owners around the world know this? How many in the UK even? The answer is almost certainly not enough.

Another recipient of an award at the RAE’s prize ceremony in London this week was Prof Anthony Kelly, who received the 2011 President’s Medal for his founding work in the field of strong solids.

The man who some now refer to as the ‘Father of Composite Materials’ jokingly played down the importance of the award as he collected it, instead announcing that Britain needed to stop whining about austerity and get on with increasing the prosperity of the nation.

While these words will be of little comfort to those who have lost their jobs or are struggling to deal with cuts to vital public services, they have an element of truth.

The constant mantra that Britain doesn’t make anything any more isn’t helpful to recovery. Instead, we need to recognise how the UK can and does change the world through its technological achievements, and build on that positivity to regrow our economy.

The Engineer Technology & Innovation Awards 2011 is open for entries. Click here to read more.

Readers' comments (9)

  • In terms of electronics, the UK also invented the PDA and the NetBook

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  • Things I regard as great British engineering...

    The Dyson vacuum cleaner
    The SSC composite manhole cover
    The Rolls Royce jet engine

    It doesn't have to be state of the art electronics or software, to showcase the key virtue of dogged application of best engineering design & development to finally come out with something better than everything else available.

    We need to stop people growing up thinking that the aim in life is to get rich quick by writing an app.

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  • I agree with this article wholeheartedly. We have always and still do come up with the best technology in the world. What we need to do more often though is to make this technology ourselves, then our economy can really take off.

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  • Yep, there have been many great inventions over the years and doubtlessly there'll be more to come. But, engineering is in decline because it is no longer viewed as attractive - and the reason for that is that engineers have allowed themselves to be valued less than business managers, project managers, HR managers, accountants, marketing managers, legal advisers, etc who, although crucial for overall product success, earn considerably higher salaries than engineers but are incapable of generating technical ideas in the first place. Even so-called technical managers are paid a pitance.

    Why would anyone want to become an engineer if, before they chose to follow that career path, they were told that they would never have the chance to earn the sort of salary which would guarantee a comfortable and secure life for themselves and their families. Has anyone ever heard of a lowly paid accountant? And why is it that project managers (for example) seem to have a higher status in companies than engineers?

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  • /they were told that they would never have the chance to earn the sort of salary which would guarantee a comfortable and secure life for themselves and their families/

    Rubbish. We could earn more in other industries, maybe - but there are millions in this country far worse off than the average engineer, and billions elsewhere.

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  • So you could earn more in other industries? Tough! Should have done your market research BEFORE you went to Uni! But I bet you did an Eng. degree because you wanted to, so stop moaning. The greats of the industrial revolution had cheap energy, cheap transport, and cheap labour, plus no planning law, no HSE or environmental health, but they also had one thing in common, they were all single minded maverick inventors who worked hard and got their hands dirty.. Very few of them went to university or had any training beyond an appreticeship which was often in a different field to the one they became famous for. (Faraday was a trained bookbinder who was employed as Humphry Davy's secratary, there are many more examples.) What we have to do can be summed up in three words, and it is exactly what they did. Invent, Patent, Exploit.

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  • The main issues are apathy and a lack of understanding of engineering, its fields, and what it brings to the public and economy. This needs addressing by making people aware of what engineering does for them and theirs, and schools are a good place to begin.

    This country does have many good inventions, but lack of foresight, investment, marketing, and economics prevent new inventions here. Youth and general attitudes also prevail, particularly when they chase the money at any cost, and there are many fine examples. A recent survey revealed over half of the 12 year old girls in the survey would have breast implants and go topless as a profession as it earns good money.

    This is the sort of attitude we face, and one which needs changing, superficial image is one thing, substance is another.

    By promoting engineering and its contribution to society we can change peoples perceptions, and encourage new talent.

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  • The fuel cell was invented 150 years or so ago, and it was used in the first telegraph stations in the US in the 1800s. The UK's contributions to new world fuel cell patents, taken out between Oct. 2009 and March 2010, is just 0.3% (source Fuel Cell Today). If anyone thinks that fuel cells do not have a bright future, I would like to know what they think does. And if anyone thinks that the UK will have a bright future making fuel cells by taking out 0.3% of new world patents, they really are dreaming.

    The UK is in in decline, and while we will have a fine old time discussing it, I doubt if we can do much to stop it.

    Every dog (and society) has its day.

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  • The fate of the UK economy is in all of our hands. Instead of moaning about the decline of British industry, all of YOU could be doing so much more to help.

    How many Engineer readers drive British made cars? Do you actually go out of your way to buy British? Do you even have the balls to ask the car salesman or whitegoods salesman "Where was this made?" Do you actually read the labels in the supermarket and check the source of your food?

    We can all do so much more, with very little effort and without breaking the bank. For example there are plenty of reasonably priced British made cars (even with Japanese labels) to choose from.

    If all the 1000s of Engineer readers and their families tried that little bit more you would all make a real difference.

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