Dr Geoff V. Merrett
www.geoffmerrett.co.uk
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D4 2011 (HG WELLS): Back to the Future

27th May 2011

A critical stage in building the gaming device!
A critical stage in building the gaming device!
Photo copyright Abdeljalil Belouettar, 2011
Second-year Electronics students were presented with a testing and unusual 'time-travel' challenge in this year's Systems Design Exercise. Known to generations of students as 'D4', the project was sponsored for the second time by Detica, with components provided by TI.

Working in teams of four to six students for just 11 days, the students were asked to use state-of-the-art components to build a handheld video game system that could be taken back in time and marketed competitively in 1985. Judging criteria for the product's success were defined as performance, features, price, aesthetics, and innovation.

The teams received precise specifications: for example, the device had to feature graphics and audio that would appeal to the 1985 market. The teams were also asked to make a video advert for their product and take part in a competitive pitch for their design in front of the judges and their classmates.

The judges were Dr Matt Sacker of the Detica Electronic Systems Group and an alumnus of ECS-Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, along with Tim Forcer of ECS and Bob Bacon of TI.

"ECS actively encourages the involvement of industry-leading electronics companies in its undergraduate programmes, said Professor Steve Gunn, Course Leader. "This is great for the students - they hear about the latest developments in this fast-moving industry and have an opportunity to find out what employers are looking for in the next generation of electronic engineers."

Pressure on the students was intense as they worked round the clock to design their handheld video game systems. Against a set of tough specifications, the students worked in groups, partitioning a large task amongst the individual team members. The students were expected to show initiative, creativity and innovation, to deploy good time management and trouble-shooting skills, and to undertake technical and market research, costing and budget analysis.

During the final judging session, Dr Sacker congratulated the students on the quality of what they had achieved: "The quality of the work produced by the students this year was much greater than when I was a student 10 years ago", he said. Describing the kinds of careers available in Detica and the quality of students for which the company is looking, Dr Sacker said that ECS students had a real advantage in the job market because of their experience of project work. "You have something very substantial that you can talk about at interviews as a result of your projects and real world experience, and that really makes Southampton students stand out," he said.

The year 1985 was chosen for the time-travel element of the project because, according to ECS Electronics lecturer Dr Rob Maunder, it represented the golden age of bedroom video game development, when successful video games could be written by a few developers, in a few weeks. "As games became more sophisticated, video game development became the exclusive domain of large development teams, with large budgets and long timescales," said Rob. "However, with the recent emergence of mobile phone gaming and indie game distribution channels, a second age of bedroom video game development is flourishing and we wanted to tap into this for D4."

The winning team members were: Thomas Conheeney, Robert Gillott, Michael Smith, Matthew Brejza and Thomas Olak. Each received £100 from Detica for their prize. Course leaders were Professor Steve Gunn, Dr Geoff Merrett and Dr Rob Maunder, with support from Tim Forcer, Jeff Hooker and Dave Oakley.

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