ZOO Digital tames the data jungle

ZOO Digital tames the data jungle

The potential nightmare of the complex data attached to the making of every TV programme and cinema film has been turned into a sweet dream for a young British software company.

 

Not only has ZOO Digital of Sheffield achieved its targets for a brand new data management system – it has accidentally invented a workflow model that nobody had thought of before.

Both ZOO and the Technology Strategy Board had realised that metadata is the key to allow the different components of a media asset to be tracked and managed. By working on this ZOO also realised that by designing it into the workflow, the workflow itself is improved.

‘It’s brilliant – a real eureka moment – and it was all made possible by Technology Strategy Board funding and support – it is because they believed in us,’ said Stuart Green, Chief Executive Officer of ZOO Digital.

‘We had the idea, but needed extra technical skills and a better understanding of the marketplace in order to develop a successful product. Our involvement with the Technology Strategy Board didn’t just involve cash - it caused us to pull together partnerships to make this happen – and now they have a success on their hands,’ he added.

Smooth journey for media files

Over the years, ZOO Digital has developed a suite of programs that help make the creative and production processes more efficient. ‘We support collaboration and automate production, enabling organisations to co-ordinate and manage their resources, their media files, round the world. We’ve become very accomplished at understanding the dynamics and politics of this process,’ says Stuart.

‘It’s brilliant – a real eureka moment – and it was all made possible by Technology Strategy Board funding and support – it is because they believed in us,’ said Stuart Green, Chief Executive Officer of ZOO Digital.

‘When movies and TV series are being prepared for a worldwide market their data files can be massive with multiple variants. You might have 50 or 60 different language editions, each with different versions - then there could be a range of formats such as DVD, Blu ray - and iTunes packages to buy online. Video files would be separate from audio, which in turn could be stereo or surround sound.

‘All sorts of individuals and organisations may be involved in the production process, including product managers, marketeers, translators, graphic designers and subtitle writers.

‘And all the marketing and product packaging has to be localised for versions round the world in an ever decreasing time frame - ensuring everyone has the latest edition and version with so many permutations is a potential nightmare,’ explained Stuart.

ZOO Digital focuses on smoothing this process, and ensuring that, for example, a Blu ray disk bound for Brazil has the Brazilian Portuguese rather than European Portuguese, or that a film for Europe has British English subtitles rather than American English ones.

‘It’s not just films. For other creative material, too, particularly when people need to give their feedback and opinions, or review material and mark it up, you need a strict process to ensure people’s voices are heard and can inform decision-making.

‘There are many parties in the value chain, including studios, post production facilities, authoring houses and electronic retailers,’ explained Stuart.

‘And the one thing they all have in common – and the reason for the existence of Zoo Digital – is metadata – data about data. Metadata could be information about a movie, title, characters, actors, director, date released, film classification, synopsis of story, version number, and which audio file it goes with.

Keeping track of targets with ZOO

‘The metadata tells you all you need to know about the file. We realised that we could use it to let companies track all their media files and immediately alert users if they did not have the latest version. It could also check that the media files were compatible. In other words, ensure that the soundtrack was the right one for the video, or that the format was correct for that reviewer.

‘And now, thanks to the Technology Strategy Board, ZOO Digital is turning these ideas into reality,’ he said.

However, ZOO Digital recognised that it didn’t have all the necessary skills to develop this product for market.

Then in 2010 Stuart spotted a call from the Technology Strategy Board for projects for ’metadata, and increasing the value of digital content.’ ‘We realised this could be the ideal way to gain funding, find the partners needed to complete the research, and minimise the risk to ZOO Digital.’ Stuart had applied for grants before and knew the first challenge was finding the right combination of participants.

‘First we needed a prototype that we could demonstrate to potential customers which required expertise we don’t have in the company. We knew would need to find a specialist,’ said Stuart.

Partnership challenges

"The technology partner we were looking for would need very specific expertise in the area of digital video analysis and processing, for example hiding data in video and extracting it. And they would need to have that knowledge already, because we would need it quickly for this project,’ he added.

He researched UK universities and was delighted to find the one that most closely matched his requirements was just down the road at Sheffield University. ‘They seemed good people to work with and were interested in this project, which was a new challenge for them and for the first time we felt we could create the prototype from a technical standpoint.

‘We also needed to find an organisation that is familiar with the problem and had expertise on media asset management systems (MAM), which are widely used by companies to build inventories of content. ‘Anything we produced would have to coexist and integrate with MAM systems, so we would need to incorporate compatibility with them in any commercial exploitation of our idea.

‘For that we chose Integrated Broadcast Information Systems (IBIS), which specialises in this area; although we know them we hadn’t worked together. ‘And we needed to find a guinea pig end-user that faces this problem but would be collaborative and supportive in developing a working product,’ he said.

ZOO Digital found their answer in London-based CTVC London, an independent production company which produces video, radio and web content; they were interested and also not a customer. ‘They were perfect,’ said Stuart.

The difficulty had been in finding two suitable organisations that were not customers: ‘By definition with research you don’t know what you will find, and possibly we would decide not to take the idea forward and commercialise it, so there was a high risk of collaborating with a customer.’

The Technology Strategy Board call had been a tough one, encompassing not only technical development but also commercialisation challenges. And ZOO Digital would also need to test the prototype in a realistic environment: ‘We knew that even if we could plug the skills gap we couldn’t definitely say there was an opportunity; just because we could see the problem and solution that didn’t necessarily mean we had a viable product commercially.

‘In the end, putting together the funding application was a last minute panic scoping out how much resources partners could commit to. But we were able to resolve this and the result was an award of £167,512 for us out of a total project funding of £338,754, where we had matched the grant. The project is called PARTEC, Persistent And Robust Tracking of Entertainment Content.

‘Three years on and we really do have a success on our hands; it has gone well, we have achieved all we set out to achieve, produced a demo, had feedback and are satisfied it is commercially viable. Our intention is to exploit it commercially,’ says Stuart.

Road to success

‘Three years on and we really do have a success on our hands; it has gone well, we have achieved all we set out to achieve, produced a demo, had feedback and are satisfied it is commercially viable. Our intention is to exploit it commercially,’ says Stuart.

ZOO Digital has launched the first release of its new software. ‘Commercialising further results of this project will take a bit longer as we need to file at least one patent, but what a good feeling that is going to be.

‘One interesting thing that came up – well, fantastic actually - and which we hadn’t anticipated, is to do with workflows which are usually for a specific function such as marketing.

‘Our original idea was to make the ability to track workflow separate from the metadata, but during the project we realised that metadata and workflow are so closely linked we’d need to provide a generic workflow system that could be adapted for any creative media workflow.

‘As we went along, we reshaped and re-planned what we were doing - the goals were the same, but the means by which they would be fulfilled changed during the project. It brought us clarity.

‘It was a light bulb moment, really significant. The workflow is key. We have really made an amazing discovery here,’ said Stuart.

ZOO Digital has now built a configurable workflow platform which has opened a substantial new opportunity which they are now very close to exploiting: ‘This was a side of the project that we hadn’t anticipated but the project revealed it and it has now had significant impact on our other products.

Ideas to reality with Technology Strategy Board

‘The Technology Strategy Board project has enabled ZOO Digital to move forward and establish that its ideas could work in a way that would otherwise have been impossible.

‘The funding has allowed us to turn our idea into a reality in a relatively short time, build a prototype and now turn it into a product which will enhance our portfolio and generate additional revenue.

‘It also meant we worked with great collaborators, which was very enjoyable. We learnt a lot from one another and will stay in touch – and there may be other opportunities for us to work together which we would thoroughly enjoy. We are also looking at applying for patents with Sheffield University,’ explained Stuart.

‘ZOO Digital is a story of a UK SME which now has something unique to offer in a global industry.’

‘Overall, the project allowed us to feel that we had not only justified a public investment in R&D that will make our business more competitive on a world stage, but that the outcomes will be beneficial to our major customers, namely big Hollywood film studios.

‘It has been instrumental in enabling us to innovate in areas that are important to our customers and therefore strengthen their commitment to us.

‘We’re just a small business in the UK but thanks to funding and support from the Technology Strategy Board our customers can see that we’re progressive, innovative and take the initiative.

‘ZOO Digital is a story of a UK SME which now has something unique to offer in a global industry.’

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