Secret Scientist: Mark Mann

Technologist at BBC R&D

The BBC R&D Department is the core of the corporation’s effort to be at the cutting edge of media technology, and drives the exploration of exciting new tools for the production and distribution of programming. In his role as a technologist, Mark Mann has drawn on scientific expertise in developing innovative ways to analyse millions of hours of unarchived BBC footage. He is currently working on a project called Musical Moods to look at how theme tunes make us feel.

Have you always been interested in science?
Yes I have. I spent a lot of my childhood gazing at stars and planets through my binoculars; I read a lot of Patrick Moore. I then read (and finished) A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I didn’t understand any of it, but I found it interesting enough to inspire me to study physics at university.

What does a typical day in your working life consist of?
My current project involves looking into opening up the archives to the public and the technical problems that come from doing so. For instance, there are over a million hours of stored content, but we don’t necessarily know what is in the content other than the name of the programme and when it was transmitted. Obviously you can’t put someone in front of a TV and force them to watch a programme and write down what is in it – it would be too expensive – so there are a number of ideas worked around getting this content data automatically.  I am writing a program which automatically locates music in the audio and tries to work out the genre and mood of the scene or programme from the audio features of the music. This will enable people to browse the archive so that they can come across something they might not necessarily know is there.

What excites you the most about your job?
I really like having the opportunity to create a new piece of kit that people are actually going to use. The great thing about working for a media company is that most of the things they produce are made to entertain people, so making something that might enhance their experience is really satisfying.

Could you tell us about something cool you have been involved with recently?
Musical Moods, the archive project. What we’re doing is to ask people to listen to BBC theme tunes and to decide what mood they perceive the music to be and what genre they think the programme belongs to. Using this data, we’re going to train a computer to learn what theme tune characteristics determine a particular mood or genre and to scan the archive to classify the rest.

I’ve also volunteered for the BBC’s School Report, helping school children to put together TV news reports.

What excites you about the future of your work?
Over the next few years it is likely that media will see a gradual shift from traditional broadcasting towards internet-based television, where you will be able to watch the programmes you want, when you want. There is a lot of new technology which needs to be invented in order for this to happen and I can’t wait to get stuck in.

How do you see your work as being different from stereotypes of science?
I used to have the stereotypical scientist job. I used to work in a clean room with a suit. I don’t wear the suit any more, but I’m still using the skills I learnt in that job such as how to approach research, in my present job. It’s different because I am focussed primarily on making a product, whereas before I was focussed on producing academic research.

More > Hear from our other Secret Scientists.

This is one of a series of interviews conducted by the British Science Association for National Science & Engineering Week 2011 and published here with thanks.

The British Science Association is the UK’s nationwide, open membership organisation that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Established in 1831, the British Science Association organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science and Engineering Week, the annual British Science Festival, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges. The Association also organises specific activities for the science communication community in the UK through its Science in Society programme. For more information, please visit the British Science Association website.

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