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Boto Media talks about Kingdom of Plants with David Attenborough: TUAW interview


We recently talked with Ross Burridge, Director & CEO of Boto Media about the recently released iPad app, Kingdom of Plants with David Attenborough. It's a joint project between Boto Media, Atlantic Productions and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The app, featuring Sir David Attenborough, walks you through the world of the plants with Attenborough as your guide.

Much of the video was filmed at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew and includes footage of the night-time flowering of the Queen of Night cactus. We talked with Burridge and Boto Media CTO David Fearon about the technical side of developing this media-intensive app and how the company was able to work with one of the world's most popular naturalists. If you want to learn more about the app, you can visit its website or download the iPad app from the iTunes App Store.

Q. What's your background? How did your team get involved with such a big project?

A. ROSS: We've worked together in proper jobs for years, mostly in publishing, as well on various side projects. As designers, developers and journalists we all shared a love for the way that technology can be used to tell great stories, but also shared a frustration with how the web handles design and editorial. In the early days of the iPad, we launched a natural history magazine called Earth Periodical, and approached Atlantic Productions about featuring David Attenborough's Flying Monsters 3D. We also ended up producing a companion app for the film, which did phenomenally well, and led on to our collaboration with Atlantic and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on Kingdom of Plants.

Q. Were there any technical challenges in developing such a media-rich app?

A. DAVID: The main challenges were with our PlantTime technology, which allows you to swipe backwards and forwards through a time-lapse photography sequence to experience time from the perspective of a plant. It's a lovely tactile feature that makes everyone grin when they first try it, but it needs a lot of RAM. Memory is a precious resource on the iPad; if you use too much, the iOS 'Jetsam' memory-management system simply kills your app and drops the user back to the desktop, and there's nothing you can do to stop it. So that's something you need to avoid at all costs.

The problem is that our target market for Kingdom of Plants includes consumers who we couldn't assume would be using the latest-generation devices, so we had to make sure the app would run on iPad 1 as well as the better-specified iPad 2 and iPad 3 (which have considerably more RAM to play with). So we had to develop a system to seamlessly reduce the number of frames displayed in a PlantTime sequence for iPad 1, thus avoiding the app being killed while keeping the user experience as close as possible to that for users of later-generation iPads. We think we got it pretty good in the end and you can barely see the difference between older and newer iPads.

Q. Was there any extra pressure because of the high-profile nature of the app?

A. DAVID: Extra pressure certainly comes with a high-profile app. When your work is being associated with someone as well-known and respected and as Sir David Attenborough, the pressure on yourself and your company to make sure it lives up to the reputation of those involved is a big thing. Beyond that, there are large stakeholders you need to make sure aren't let down, and hard deadlines to coincide with launch events. There were a lot of 24-hour-plus working stints to get the app ready for launch on time.

Q. You obviously have worked on graphically-beautiful apps. Does the Retina display of the new iPad open new doors for even-better content? Are there any projects that you've held off on until the iPad display was a little bit better and the GPU a bit beefier?

A. DAVID: The strange thing about Retina is the fact that people often don't really notice it *until* they see a non-Retina app or device, and suddenly everything looks pixellated and dreadful. We believe Retina-style displays are absolutely the way forward and you need to make sure you support them off the bat. The nice part is that if you've designed your app properly, for instance by using standard Apple UIKit elements for text rather than images, text automatically looks amazing with no effort on your part. Supporting Retina for custom UI elements simply requires being organised from the start and producing or commissioning all your assets at high resolution.

As far as the GPU is concerned, you have to juggle the temptation to play with what's available on new devices while keeping an eye on backward compatibility with older devices. But we have a few projects in the planning stages which, once they're reaching fruition, will be able to use the current generation of GPUs. The most amazing thing about the iOS platform and graphics hardware is its energy efficiency; as long as you're careful you can do some amazing stuff - both 2D animation and 3D work - at almost negligible cost to battery life, and that's a huge thing.

Q. I notice you write apps in collaboration with others and even for others, how is the market for developers who contract out projects instead of only developing their own?

A. DAVID: The app business isn't the license to print money it's often perceived to be; development is expensive and the risks are high. For every Draw Something there are hundreds of others that fail to catch on. By producing apps for third-party clients, you mitigate some of that risk, but of course you then rightly cede much of the post-launch profit to that partner. But beyond that, we actually really enjoy helping out companies who have huge amounts of talent in their chosen arena but haven't tackled the app market before. It's very rewarding to work with skilled and intelligent people, and ultimately give them something that makes them say "wow."

ROSS: The cost of producing high-production value content can be staggering, particularly when the story demands a fusion of HD video, CGI, photography, text and interactivity woven through. The sheer number of disciplines needed in producing a decent interactive app is also tremendous, so collaboration becomes a vital part. How the various (and increasingly converging) media industries are going to adapt to that is fascinating.

Q. Do you have any future projects that you can share with us?

A. ROSS: We've got some exciting irons in the fire. Some in a similar vein to this latest app, while others are rather different. But it's fair to say iOS is at the core of most right now...

DAVID: We're currently focused on taking the kind of app we produced with Kingdom of Plants, and pushing that to a new technological level. Our primary motivation as a company is finding new methods of expression using the technology, networking capability and computing power that's now available. You can view an iPad (or dare we say a Nexus 7 tablet) as a sensor platform packing a GPS, gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and quad-core CPU that until recently would have been unthinkably expensive.

There's a huge amount of expression potential there which people are only just beginning to find ways of exploiting. That's where we want to be: finding those ways.

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