I'm a professional game developer from Wakefield, England, working as a senior programmer for Rebellion North.
I'm a married father of five and I a also sometimes do Retroburn stuff.
Martin 'Bytrix' Caine
Father. C++ Games Programmer. Cyclist. Guitarist.
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Monday, November 28th 2011 / XNA

Introducing Vequencer, an alphalabs.cc experiment

On Saturday I took part in the launch event for Nokia's alphalabs experiment. It was a great event and I really enjoyed the entire day, but before I go into more detail let me give you some background information.

About a month ago I was contacted by a member of Nokia's developer outreach program (Robin Cramp) with regards to working on a project for Nokia's new Windows Phone, the Lumia 800. It sounded like something I'd like to be involved in so I put my name in. I was given a few more details, namely that the project was to bring an artist together with a developer to create something the developer might not necessarily be able to create without the help of a more artistic person.

A week or two passed and just a few days after my Son Vaughan was born I got an email again asking if I could make it to London the following evening for a meeting in London. Luckily I was on paternity leave from work and my Wife knew I was excited about this project so I confirmed my attendance and got the train down to London the next day.

When I arrived at the meeting I met Simon Jackson (whom I have met before and know through my work with the XNA UK UserGroup) and Matt Lacey (the founder of the Windows Phone User Group in the UK) and was told that we were to be teamed up to work on the project and that there were two more teams which were to be involved in whatever Nokia had planned.

We were treated to an hour and a half introduction to the project from various people.including Keith Varty from Nokia, Andy Sithers from Microsoft and Shane Walter from onedotzero (more about them in a minute). This whole thing was also put together by Wieden+Kennedy for Nokia so there were quite a few of those guys in attendance too.

Basically, the meeting was designed to give us all an overview of what the project was and to introduce us to one-another. There were three teams of developers there that day. Treehouse Dev, IndieSkies and my own team with Simon and Matt. We were each paired with a specially selected artist chosen by onedotzero.

Shane gave us a great introduction to onedotzero and I myself had never heard before. They are an organization that is at the forefront of all things technological and artistic, and have a particular focus on anything that merges the two, the creativity and the code or technology that drives it. I can see why Nokia partnered with onedotzero as there is something almost artistic about their phones and the new Lumia is beautiful.

We were introduced to Stuart Warren Hill and he talked about his work with Hexstatic and Holotronica and his ideas for applications we could develop using his vision and our expertise in programming for the Windows Phones. We talked about the idea of a visual sequencer where the user could remix one of Stuart's tracks and create their very own piece of music. Matt and Simon quickly jumped on the idea of using multiple devices within a single session to create a collaborative piece of music. Simon and I had to head off early from the meeting to get our trains back up north so we left Matt and Stuart to discuss ideas.

Over the next few days we communicated a lot by email and got all of our ideas laid down for the app. We decided that between us we'd split the work into completely separate elements. Matt was to work on networking the devices, I was to work on all the 3D elements of the application and Simon would manage the project and bring all of our work together into a complete application. I received my development phones from Nokia (yes, I got two Lumia 800s, since we were developing a multiplayer game, though I would have to give one back after the alphalabs launch) and quickly got to work and got a very basic version of the application working as per Stuart's conceptual screenshots:

Next we got a great little concept video from Stuart showing how he imagined the app working and looking in multiplayer mode so I got to work on some basic 3D XNA and pushed out an updated version:

By this time we also had working multiplayer at the most basic level which Matt and Simon had tested across various devices and we were happy with the way we were trying to get the devices to communicate. Stuart was so impressed with our progress that he sent us a video of one of his singles from Holotronica entitled Sentinel. He asked if we would be able to simulate some of the animations from the track and I told him it wouldn't be a problem, we also upped the number of instruments in the app from 3 to 8 which was a better reflection of the track and offered more variety in both sound and visualization.

After a few more days of development I had another version ready for testing with some of the visuals from Sentinel up and running:

From this point Simon merged my XNA visuals and Matt's networking code into a combined Silverlight+XNA application for Windows Phone 7.5. This combined project was updated by each of us roughly 3 or 4 times each day over the next week tweaking visuals, testing networking code and improving the design and controls for the application. The day before the alphalabs launch we pushed our final changes and made sure each member of the team had the same build loaded up on their phones ready for the demo.

I was up until 1am feeding my Son before heading off to bed on Friday night, and I set all my alarms for 4am just so I could get up and catch the train at 5:15am! Luckily, the second alarm to go off did wake me up and I made my way to the onedotzero_adventures in motion event at the BFI Southbank in London. I arrived about 8:30 while everything was being set up and by about 9:30 most of the developers and artists involved had arrived. We took the opportunity to get some footage of the app running on 8 devices at the same time and it looked awesome!

8 Nokia Lumia 800s running Vequencer in a shared composition

The event kicked off with Keith Varty (Nokia), Will Coleman (Microsoft) and Shane Walter (onedotzero) giving an overview of what alphalabs is all about and then we were the first team up to demo our application which we had now entitled Vequencer (a trademark Stuart holds for a Visual Sequencer). Stuart showed some of his Sentinel video and gave a brief introduction to what his expectations were and how he envisioned the application turning out. Then Matt gave a more technical overview of the project while Stuart gave a demo of 4 phones working together to create a composition (which sounded far better than any of our attempts). Then it was my turn to briefly talk about the 3D work I did on the project and how I had tried to copy the visuals from Stuart's Sentinel video as closely as I could, especially considering the phone was rendering this all in realtime at 60 frames per second! Then Simon talked about how we managed the project and pulled it all together. Our segment we thought went well and we got a nice loud round of applause.

The next two teams then showed their applications. Field worked together with Treehouse Dev to create a cool looking little 3D racing game called Redshift where the track followed the music. I did already know a little bit about this project as I had spoken to Edward Powell (co-founder of the XNA UK UserGroup) and he had been drafted in to help the team as they had very limited experience with XNA and with 3D game production. Together with Ed's help they produced an exciting looking little game in under two weeks and the demo was impressive. I look forward to seeing what these guys can do in the future and what other projects Field are working on.

Then Max Hattler and IndieSkies took to the stage to demo their creative Kaleidobooth application. It was a nice little take on the Kaleidoscope using the camera, gestures and microphone to create an interactive experience. The main effect was quite impressive and even as a developer I thought it was very good (and I was wondering how I might make something like that myself). I'll have to keep an eye on IndieSkies and will definitely check out some of Max's other work as his demo reel was stunning.

Next came some networking, everyone got a chance to come round and ask questions and chat to us and it was great to hear so many positive comments from everyone. I did see a lot of dodgy moustaches which I assume was down to Movember and means I probably won't recognise those people next time I meet them (once they've had a shave). There were some familiar faces too, Ben Pritchard and Paul Harman from Leda Entertainment, and Simon P Stevens were in attendance and I've met those guys through the XNA UK Usergroup before. It was good to talk to experienced devs and also devs who have never touched Windows Phones or XNA before and I hope the event has sparked their imagination and they find time to enter something into the alphalabs competition.

Speaking of the competition, Nokia have launched alphalabs as a creative coding competition revolving around their Lumia 800. The aim of the compeition is to create something interactive and stimulating which also makes best use of the features of the Lumia 800. First prize is £5000 and there are ten runners up prizes of £500. Quite an incentive to enter something that will take minimal time to develop over the next 6 weeks.

Following the networking, we (the dev teams and artists) were gathered together and personally thanked by those responbile for putting together the event and we were all given a present from Nokia/Wieden+Kennedy, an awesome Bose Soundlink (portable Bluetooth speaker) which was unexpected and after having had a play around it's now my new favourite toy. It works with all my phones, my iMac and (via cable) my Line6 FloorPod guitar amp simulator and effects unit. The sound quality is amazing from the deepest bass to the highest leads the clarity is stunning.

Next we went for a late lunch and drinks (and I had a nice chat with Katie from Wieden+Kennedy who now knows more about me and my family than my co-workers do!). The meal was nice though Chinese isn't one of my favourite foods to be honest but I had a few bits and pieces. It was then getting close to 5pm and I had to dash to get my train back home and the end of a great day.

Here's a vid Matt took showing the multiplayer composition mode from the demo app we showed at the event:

I'd like to thank everyone from Nokia, Microsoft, onedotzero, Wieden+Kennedy, my team, the other two teams and all that attended for making it such a great day and something I really have enjoyed being a part of.

Our team will still be working together in the future and Stuart in particular has big plans for Vequencer (and Holotronica). Stay tuned for updates relating to the app's development and release!

Here's the edited video of our presentation:

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Tags:   alphalabs   nokia   vequencer   wp7   xna   xnaukug