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July 21st, 2014

Digital Revolution is the Barbican’s latest immersive and interactive exhibition, bringing together a range of filmmakers, artists, designers, musicians, game developers and innovators to take visitors on a journey of tech through the ages. Our resident ‘techspert’ Neil Evely gives us his highlights in this two-part blog special. Neil shares Part 1 of his highlight below.


Digital Revolution at The Barbican in London is a fascinating showcase of old, new and futuristic technology, exploring such topics as the history of home computing via the ‘Digital Archaeology’ section (my fave), using code to create interactive art in ‘State of Play’ and good old fashioned gaming in their wire caged ‘Indie Games’ area.

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It would perhaps be better known as 'Digital Evolution', so detailed is the story of the birth of 8-bit computing through to now, that I would have gladly spent all afternoon in that one section.

'Digital Archaeology' introduces us to the forefathers of the Wii and Kinect with such classics as Pong from 1972 and Pac Man from 1980. I had never played an original Pac Man, and if I hadn't been aware of the queue behind me, I expect I would have remained glued at the 80’s yellow podium until closing time. An interesting fact about Pac Man is that it was very nearly called Puck Man but the developer nerds were fearful of vandals changing the 'P' to an 'F' on the machine (clearly a different target audience), and so Pac Man was born.

You can browse all manner of kit of yore here, including the original Donkey Kong (which introduced the now ubiquitous d-pad for control), Game Boys, ZX80’s and even the classic Speak and Spell, one of the first toys to use digital audio.

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Back in 1978, two geeks at MIT decided they’d mount a gyroscope on top of a car, which had multiple stop frame cameras attached. They drove around the town of Aspen, taking photos at 10 feet intervals, which were stored on laser disc. This footage was played back on a computer and controlled by a touch screen (!). Cut to 20 years later and tech goliath Google took this process one step further and gave us all ‘Street View’.

I mention this specifically because as you move about the exhibit (and later when I poured through the excellent accompanying book), it becomes more and more obvious at how much we owe to these early developers. For example, MUD1 was a 1978 text based Dungeons and Dragons-esq game, where you select a compass direction based on how you wanted the story to unfold. Twenty years later, MMORPG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game) is the most popular genre across the globe.

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As far back as the 1970's, the Game of Life was written by mathematician John Horton Conway, whereby you created an ecosystem based on pixels and how close / far they were from their neighbours. After you configured your blocks, it took care of itself, growing and developing on its own, possibly a precursor to the Japanese craze of Tamagotchi.

Not to mention that by the end of the 1980's, Pac Man’s revenues exceeded that of Star Wars, early signs that the monstrous figures earned by Rockstar Games over the past few years (GTA V grossed 1 billion dollars), which have put Hollywood to shame, perhaps shouldn't have come as quite such a surprise.

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All in all, the 'Digital Archaeology' section was informative and great fun, even if the final piece of the show was a 2.5D music video from Will.I.am, who wrote the song especially for The Barbican. No surprise that the self styled creative technologist saw fit to use his face as the central part of his video - nothing too unique in that approach as far as I could tell.

In Part 2 of  this blog, I look at the more interactive and creative aspects that you can expect to see, and also which indie games caused us to wrestle controllers way from 11 year old kids.

Digital Revolution runs until the 14th September 2014 – book tickets here.