Regrowing our economy is more than just a game

Senior reporter

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.