Page last updated at 08:41 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 09:41 UK

Hacking and mashing at the Palace

By Ewan Spence

Alexandra Palace
Alexandra Palace broadcast a TV signal for the first time since 1956

The ingredients for Mashed are simple.

Bring the best web developers from around the United Kingdom; mix them together with new web tools, applications and services; then leave them for a whole weekend to see what they will come up with.

The United Kingdom has a strong community of programmers and web developers, and this annual event organised by the BBC Backstage team brings them alongside the latest technologies from leading internet companies including Microsoft, Yahoo and O'Reilly.

The core principle of the Mashed event was for the attendees to "make something cool".

With close to fifty hacks presented on Sunday afternoon, there was a lot of creativity on show.

Individuals gathered around tables, claimed corners of the West Hall, throwing out ideas and suggestions for hacks that they could plan, develop, test and be ready to present just twenty four hours later to everyone in the hall.

While the term hacking has a perceived darker edge, the developer community regards hacking as something more pure, where people simply do things with programs and to hardware that might not be their intended use, but provide useful results.

Internet companies are making it much easier for their data to be hacked and used for new purposes by developers.

Signal change

The opening of the event was focused on sessions and seminars from the companies attending.

Albert Square Sign
The cast of Eastenders were given a robotic makeover

Pamela Clark from NASA presented ANTS technology - the Autonomous Nanotechnology Swarm - which is likely to be designed into future probes to Mars and beyond.

Microsoft brought along speakers from their Robotics Team, as well as the Multimaps team, while Yahoo talked about their FireEagle tools and how it can be used.

Perhaps the most popular sessions was on how to program interactive television services. Introducing the programmers to the relatively new language of MHEG was well received, and a number of developers were itching to test out what they could do to make an interactive service.

To aid this, for the first time since 1956, Alexandra Palace broadcast a TV signal (albeit with just enough range to fill the hall).

A full DVB-T multiplex broadcasting a number of channels, as well as the back-end systems that control the interactive TV services was available to the attendees eager to prototype ideas that previously were limited to computer screens.

One highly regarded use, given the "best hack of the event" award, was from the Northender team.

Pulling in a number of programs on the web, they were able to create automatic translation software for live television by reading digital subtitles into a computer, translating these to a foreign language and passing the results through a speech synthesizer.

The demo of Eastenders into rather robotic German proved the concept, but the emotional scenes from Walford took on a surreal air with the monotone computer voice.

Sideways shift

Team Bob took a similar route to Northenders by reading in digital subtitles, but then analysed them for key words and phrases that were then digitally painted onto the cards carried by Bob Dylan in the classic "Subterranean Blues" video.

Jim Purbrick presents Carbon Goggles
Carbon Goggles was one of many hacks presented over the weekend

Carbon Goggles took on the task of showing the amount of carbon footprint various pieces of technology produce.

"Global warming would be much easier to solve if you could see carbon dioxide," said Jim Purbrick.

"We've put two ideas together by overlaying real world carbon emission data from AMEE [an aggregation platform that measures and tracks the world's energy usage] on to objects in Second Life"

The goggles are worn in the virtual world of Second Life, and as you look around, a transparent sphere illustrating the relative amounts of carbon used by each object can be seen, allowing for instant comparisons of objects, and perhaps a better understanding of the energy choices we make in the real world.

Mashed continues to prove both that the community spirit is alive and well in the UK web scene, but also that many of the new ideas that can shape the internet in the 21st century are not necessarily going to come from large companies, who sometimes are not in a position to push technological boundaries.

Individuals can find that edge, sometimes with amusing effect (such as the Social Flight Simulator to demonstrate data that airlines could provide) to practical uses (receiving an alert whenever your favourite TV has a new episode available on the iPlayer), to the potential to genuinely change lives (the Scripting Enabled Crew hacked together an audio search system for blind users of the BBC).

Alexandra Palace broadcast the first UK TV signals back in 1936, which heralded a revolution in media and communication.

To see it and the BBC continuing to be associated with the hacking of new technology is marvellous.

By developing the ecosystem around these tools and providing more data to them, the BBC is helping to build up value and trust in them, and the resulting projects from the developers both at Mashed, and throughout the year, are both cool and useful. And that should be encouraged.




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