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Q&A with Dan Hett

Creative technologist and visual artist from Manchester

Hello! I'm Dan, and I'm a creative technologist and visual artist from sunny Manchester, UK. Right now I'm working as a games developer for BBC Children's, and in a few weeks I'll be starting a six month stint as a Technologist for the BBC's R&D department. I also put out a lot of work in my own right: mostly installation work, for the likes of TATE Liverpool and more recently a project as part of the Manchester Cornerhouse's closing exhibitions. I also do a lot of live visual performance work (as Bitrituals), using a combination of live coding and video mixing to create large scale projected eye candy for bands and DJs all over the place. Never a dull moment!

How did you get started in game development? What is your background?

I'm actually a slight programming impostor - I actually ended up getting a degree in Design & Visual Arts, rather than taking the usual computer science path that developers usually have. I initially had grand plans to do something lovely and design-based, and then halfway through studying realised that I was actually far better at the technical stuff. I started dabbling with Flash for animations, then graduated into writing little bits of code to make life easier as I went, and when that toe-in-the-water code experimenting went well I jumped in properly. From there on I was self taught, or certainly taught on the job anyway - it was a baptism of fire in many respects (don't tell lies on those CV's, kids!) but it worked out OK in the end.

After graduating I spent four years working as an interactive developer for a great agency in Manchester, Creative Lynx (now Havas Lynx), still working on really visual projects but in an increasingly technical capacity as I learned more - going from making Flash websites (remember those?) to a lot of app development and the occasional bit of really creative installation work, exploring early stabs at augmented reality installations, that sort of thing. I also had chance to make a few games there, which was what I really fell in love with. When an opportunity popped up at BBC Children's I jumped at the chance.

Since joining the Beeb I've worked on all sorts of fun things - almost on the day I arrived I was tasked with building a multiplayer games API for them - no pressure! More recently I've been the lead developer on CBeebies Storytime, an iOS/Android story app which has just ticked over a million downloads and counting. In a few weeks I'll be starting a six month placement in the R&D department, working on... actually I have no idea what I'll be working on yet, but I'm sure it'll be interesting!

What are you working on now?

I recently completed work on an installation project to mark the closure of the iconic Cornerhouse in Manchester - the Scribbler. We (myself and a few collaborators, working as Studio Audience) built an end-of-the-pier style machine that allowed people to send in messages to say goodbye to the closing gallery, which would then be written out by a giant anamatronic pencil and displayed in the gallery. The whole thing was streamed online too, so users on the site we built could type in their messages and see them pop out in the galley more or less in real time. We had hundreds of really lovely messages through the machine, and it was a proper honour to work with a client that's been at the centre of my creative life in the city since I began studying.

Right now I'm focused on my live visual performance work - I work using a combination of live-coding and traditional vj video mixing to create visuals for gigs and clubnights. Right now I'm preparing to play the Analogue Trash festival next month, and in September I'm going to be a headlining visual artist for the SuperByte chiptune festival in Manchester. Live work is something I sort of stumbled into by accident, but it's been a huge amount of fun! Live coding in particular is really white-knuckle and unpredictable compared to the usual slow pace of regular programming, it's a really exciting medium to work with. I've also started mashing this stuff into video in a more traditional vj setup, so creatively I'm able to do all sorts of neat things. I'm constantly learning.

What software do you use for your work?

It really depends on what I'm doing. My programming weapon of choice right now is definitely Haxe, a fantastic open source language that lets you output to almost any platform - you can export to HTML5, desktop apps or even iOS/Android from the same codebase. I'm also a big fan of openFrameworks, which powers Cyril, the livecoding software I use. I've also got a big soft spot for Processing, which I've used a lot over the years for rapid prototyping. It's worth noting that almost all my favoured technologies these days are open-source, and this is something I really try to do with my own work: for example, every bit of the Cornerhouse Scribbler is available on Github - from the site code itself right down to the Arduino logic and even the schematics of the machine. I'd be nowhere without open source, and sharing is caring... everyone wins with open source!

And what hardware?

I work on the world's most beaten-up sticker-covered dented Macbook Pro. Apple hardware is stupidly expensive, but this thing has handled everything I've thrown at it, including beer spillages while I've been using it for live shows and an angry toddler running around with it too. When this machine does finally give up the ghost (and I wouldn't blame it) I'll actually be switching away and rolling a Linux distro full time: I want to put my money where my mouth is with my belief in open source technology, and I think this should absolutely apply to my choice of operating system. I just hope I can find a laptop that will physically handle what I throw at it...

What is your ideal work environment?

Ideally underneath a big pair of soundproof headphones. By day I work in a large noisy open-plan office, and outside of that I work all over the place, so good-quality cans and some killer tunes are a must. My headphones match my ghetto laptop at the moment too: they're more gaffer tape than headphone now, but they're like a comfy pair of slippers at this point. Basically if I'm not being distracted and I've got coffee within arm's reach, I'm pretty happy to work anywhere really.

Who are the developers you admire most?

Far far too many to mention, but broadly I most admire people who work creatively across wide ranges of technologies rather than pigeonholing themselves into one approach. In particular, the likes of Hellicar and Lewis, Seb Lee-Delisle and Kimchi & Chips have influenced my work massively. I'm also really inspired by anyone who just plain blows my mind: Cyriak Harris, Beeple, Gmunk, Mr Bingo, the list is honestly endless. What an exciting time to be into making stuff, eh?