The Friday Interview: Charlie Pritchard, DIT

9 Sep 2005

Charlie Pritchard (pictured), head of Dublin Institute of Technology’s (DIT) Digital Media Centre (DMC), is standing at the front of a lecture room, giving a presentation to a post-summer gathering of lecturers, researchers and students of DIT as part of an internal communications programme. He is updating them on the work of the DMC, which, since it was founded a decade ago, has become a leading site in Ireland for multidisciplinary research into intelligent content and other areas of digital media. Now employing 20 researchers, the DMC has more than 70 projects behind it.

“Five years ago we might have had to go looking for research projects, now projects are coming to us,” he tells his audience.

Scottish-born Pritchard has been involved in the digital media scene in Ireland since the early Nineties. At that time, he led DIT’s involvement in an international team that established the first European Masters in Interactive Multimedia, funded by the EU. He was also a founding member of the Irish Interactive Multimedia Association, which claims to be the first representative body for the digital media industry in Ireland more than a decade ago.

Though based in the Faculty of Applied Arts, the DMC’s model is to build bridges with other faculties and set up interdisciplinary teams that pull together different types of expertise. “We have a wide range of skillsets in the DMC and we are one of the few research groups that would cover such a wide area,” he says.

An example of this is the work being done in the area of computer-assisted learning. The Digital Interactive Tools for Music Education (DITME) project is being conducted on behalf of the DIT Conservatory of Music, which was looking for a way to help its students learn particular instruments. By tapping into the engineering faculty that supplied digital signal processing expertise, the DITME team was able to write algorithms for sound-source separation.

“It is a teaching aid for music education that allows you to separate out and remove any instrument from a given piece of music so that a music student can play that part instead,” Pritchard explains. “The music can also be slowed down while the pitch is kept the same. The DMC has a number of others areas in which it feels sound-source separation might be very useful, such as removing background noise from mobile phone conversations and hearing aids for example.”

The DMC holds patents in the areas of sound-source separation and speech slowdown. The latter technology has attracted the interest of a large international publisher, with which a licensing agreement is “reasonably close” to being signed, according to Pritchard.

Another project that’s just got under way — a one-year Enterprise Ireland funded project called Articulate — plans to develop a vowel pronunciation tool for people learning English. When the user pronounces a vowel, it is analysed by the software and fed back to the user in visual form so they can see how close their pronunciation is to the ideal.

On the whole area of commercialising new software and applications, Pritchard is firmly in the camp that says patents are nice to have but not worth a great deal unless you can ultimately make money from them. He believes it is important that the DMC strikes a balance between a teaching and research role and what he calls “experimental production”, which amounts to a consultancy or product development role with industry partners.

Pritchard says it is much easier to secure funding than it used to be with the DMC currently having €800k worth of projects in play. Funds come from a variety of sources, both national and international. While the EU funding has been a mainstay of many research teams around Ireland for many years, Pritchard notes that the increasing level of bureaucracy involved is causing problems. “If you are successful in your proposal submission, you’ve got a six-to-nine month lead time where you go into contract negotiation. Before that again, you’ve got a proposal preparation and evaluation … It can be up to two years between the time you had an idea and when you actually start work on it, so you’ve got to make sure whatever you’re putting in will stand the time delay.”

However, one area that is much improved is funding for postgraduate researchers. “Until recently it was very difficult to get funding for postgrads and they were exceptionally poorly paid. With a lot of the research projects now we can afford to bring people in and pay them a reasonable rate. I don’t think we’ll ever match industry but you have to be conscious of the fact that researchers have to live,” he says.

Perhaps the most challenging part of Pritchard’s job is dealing with the sheer physical diffuseness of the Applied Arts faculty itself, which is spread over some 26 DIT sites in Dublin. This will all change when the DIT is consolidated on one site in Grangegorman over the next few years. It is an event in which Pritchard and his team will be taking more than a passing interest because another one of the team’s current projects involves mapping the Grangegorman facility using Ordnance Survey of Ireland maps and then building a dynamic environment on top using a gaming engine. The technology has generated considerable commercial interest, he says. “We’ve had a lot of architects to come in a look at it. They think it’s a great product. We could do it on a more commercial basis but we’d have to set up a spin-off company.”

In terms of the future, Pritchard says he plans to maintain close links with industry because this will steer the future direction of his research. He notes that the recent introduction of a number of games courses mirrors the growing importance of the global games industry and plans are at an advanced stage to introduce a gaming course at DIT as well — but a gaming course with a difference.

“We want to make ours wider than just games because the whole entertainment industry is much wider than just games. We want to focus on any sort of media that’s engaged in for fun and enjoyment. Industry doesn’t fashion its technology cycles to suit the educational system. So our strategy is to be as flexible as possible in adapting to the changes that are going to take place in industry.”

By Brian Skelly