SOMETIMES the pace of technological change is astounding. Though our parents and grandparents may have lived through the atomic age and watched an astronaut land on the Moon, they could hardly have imagined that we would now be able to carry around an entire library of books on our e-readers or enjoy more songs on our MP3 players than most hospital radio stations.
That pace of change seems unlikely to slow anytime soon, and Scottish companies are at the very heart of pushing forward digital technology’s boundaries. From creating software to analyse “big data” – the wealth of information captured by digital devices – through to computer games that educate children without them even realising it, Scottish entrepreneurs are never short of an idea or two.
One man who’s experienced that change at first hand is Chris van der Kuyl, chair of the advisory board at Informatics Ventures, which runs programmes to support technology entrepreneurs. As chief executive of VIS Entertainment, Dundee-based van der Kuyl was in charge of one of Scotland’s most exciting video game developers of the 1990s. Now, as chairman of 4J Studios, he’s responsible for Minecraft’s Xbox 360 incarnation.
“Big data is at the heart of so many of the most exciting businesses that I’m seeing at the moment,” said van der Kuyl. “The harnessing of big data is coupled with the huge reduction in cost around processing that data.
“Five or ten years ago, you needed a ridiculously-expensive supercomputer to analyse big data, but now you can use cloud services, such as Amazon web services. Anyone with an idea can give it a go, not just boffins in universities.”
Van der Kuyl, who is also chair of membership body Entrepreneurial Scotland, points to the success of Scottish companies that are using big data, including TVSquared, which analyses the effectiveness of television advertising in almost real-time, and Mallzee, which has been described as “Tinder for fashion” by bringing together more than 100 clothing brands for sale on a single app.
“One of the biggest changes that we’re going to see in the years to come is around the use of augmented reality,” he said. “Whether that will be through the use of devices like Samsung’s Gear VR or through other devices is hard to predict, but augmented reality is going to literally change our view of the world.
“At the moment, we carry around mobile phones and laptop computers, but augmented reality will make all of these devices disappear. We’ll be using displays that only we can see, overlaid onto our normal vision using glasses or visors or whatever the technology may be.
“That sort of technology will open up all sorts of other opportunities too for developing apps or other software.”
Van der Kuyl made his name as a games developer, first with titles like State of Emergency with VIS and now by developing the Minecraft brand. But he’s always had one eye on education too.
“Another company that’s really impressed me in recent years has been CogBooks,” added van der Kuyl. “It’s an adaptive learning platform that’s based at the CodeBase incubation centre in Edinburgh and it’s doing some really cool stuff. That’s a combination of edu-tech and big data as well.”
CogBooks can deliver lessons at home that have been adapted to each individual student’s particular needs, so that when they get to the college or university tutorial room they have already built-up the initial knowledge, allowing their lecturer or tutor to concentrate on problem solving and other higher skills. The system can also feedback information about each student’s performance, offering a further way to harness big data.