It may come as a surprise to some visitors to pastoral Lincolnshire, but hidden in a bustling academic workshop in the centre of Lincoln, a cohort of creative minds are working intently on ingenious, digital age solutions, capable of disrupting a global technology arena.
A future once restricted to out-of-this world science fiction movies is today’s entrepreneurial reality, and in the home county of ‘father of computing’ George Boole, tech talents at the University of Lincoln are today being guided and inspired by one of the most well-known stars in the industry, Jason Bradbury.
Arriving for his interview with Lincolnshire Business sporting the latest wearable technology, this time in the form of the world’s first contactless payment ring (Kerv), Jason enthusiastically introduces the next must-have culture of smart jewellery. “I like this sort of elegance. It speaks of the fusion of design and startup culture that we’re seeking to encourage and have been encouraging with the last year in product design.
“But that’s nothing”, he adds. The students he has worked with in his time as visiting lecturer at the university are already working on introducing the next era of cutting edge technology to the world, he reveals.
After spending the last 20 years reviewing tech products, Jason’s knowledge is an asset to the university’s team of visiting lecturers and he has been teaching students on the Computer Science and Product Design programmes since 2014. Aside from this, he is best known as the flamboyant, tech-mad television presenter and Dot.Robot author fronting shows such as Channel 5’s The Gadget Show, BBC One’s Don’t Scare the Hare and last year several rounds of the Tour Series cycling competition.
After becoming the last original presenter to announce he would be leaving the Gadget Show at the end of 2016, 12 years after making his first programme, Jason is moving to new academic prospects and creative horizons. His continuing on-camera career however may not be entirely in TV, as we know it at least.
The gadgets, the laughs and the 80s
Jason, 48, first came to Lincolnshire in 1979 and went to school in the Woodhall Spa area. Aside from the technological advances, time travelling movie stars and memorable fashion trends of life in the 80s, his inspirations growing up also came from his father.
“Dad worked at Wragby Plastics. He would have been useful to know now!”, recalls Jason. “He used to make stuff in the 80s for the first generation of computers. Things like the Sinclair C5 by English inventor Sir Clive Sinclair in 85, the Sinclair ZX80 and the ZX81, the first generation of personal computers.
“He was making the plastics for those things so I used to get all the prototypes for all the early electronics when I was younger; things like the first digital watches and the first calculators. That’s what started it all. The 80s was very tech savvy, similar to now really.
“I suppose I was influenced by computer games and game designers, some of the great Japanese Nintendo fame. I was a big fan of Sir Clive Sinclair. But I was also inspired by products, and that includes fictional products like the Back to the Future hoverboard, which I attempted to make in several iterations. In fact when I went to the Gadget Show, I suggested that we try to make a hoverboard out of leafblower engines and they actually helped me to make that”. If his own hoverboard wasn’t enough of a superfan indulgence, Jason also built his own custom Delorean car, which he has proudly displayed at events across the country.
Surprisingly, Jason’s interests didn’t initially take him down the path of technology and gadgets. “There was another side to my character growing up”, he hints. “I love drama and acting. It was a difficult decision whether to go down an engineering and design route or to study these passions.”
Not only did Jason end up in Bristol studying drama alongside the likes of Simon Pegg and influential late playwright Sarah Kane, but he also found a comedy duo partner in “best buddy” David Walliams.
“Me and David were in a double act for about three or four years. We did lots of stand-up and we actually had a comedy club called David Icke and the Orphans of Jesus. We performed above a restaurant in Bristol and the compare was Dominik Diamond, who went on to host Gamesmaster.
“Myfanwy Moore was on the bill, producer for Little Britain, and off course David Walliams and Simon Pegg. We really made a good go of it before going off in our different career directions.”
— David Walliams (@davidwalliams) January 26, 2015
Jason explains his background in performance and comedy helped get his TV career off the ground and later brought a unique zest back to his routes of engineering and design. “You get a thirst for tech and engineering and design, but then you get this disconnect where people who are ‘geeks’ don’t always have the ability to communicate to you in a way that’s passionate and understandable. What I lack in technical knowledge I make up for in charisma.”
The thing with TV…
Before the Gadget Show, Jason had worked on a number of projects such as Channel Four’s The Big Breakfast and the Web Review Show on ITV. However, it was the Gadget Show that made him famous and changed his life.
“I did an audition and I took along my plan for a hoverboard. They thought I was joking until I showed them how it would work. I made it in my garden in Lincoln where I had bought a house, on Carline Road.
“The highlights for me were things like racing Pollyanna Woodward on the world’s fastest jet skis in Manhattan, chased by a helicopter. Or having a huge inflatable bag airlifted onto the top of a mountain so I could do a backward somersault on a snowboard. Shooting a watch that said it could stand a bullet in the face in a small shooting range in a basement in Brooklyn, with New York NYPD marksmen.
“Or trying the new, as it was then, water powered jet pack with its creator Franky Zapata. Or having a robot fight in a back street in Akihabara, which roughly translated means ‘electric town’, in Tokyo.
“Challenges? There weren’t any really. It was just hilarious.”
When it comes to discussing his departure from the show, Jason does not mince his words. “While Gadget Show will never be repeated, it was life-changing and I owe huge gratitude to the show. Ultimately though you are still working for someone else, and if I’m guilty of anything it’s not having a piece of the action and not being responsible for my own stuff.
“Here’s the thing. Television is finished. TV is over, in the way that we know it. We’re going to read about the crisis of faith in TV as advertisers realise they are pumping money into a medium that no one is watching anymore.”
Jason adds that he is in no way dancing around the funeral pyre, and that he is still passionate about television. However, diminishing audiences, he says, correlate with a rise in popularity for on-demand services like Netflix and YouTube – and that’s where he sees a new chapter of career opportunities.
“Even though I’m starting quite late, I want to do YouTube because I want to do my own thing. I’d rather fail and do it on my own terms than I would to be successful but ultimately owe it to someone else. I’ve done the team work thing and I’ve really enjoyed it but now I want to branch out and do it for myself.”
Putting the ‘punk’ into product
Since being announced as the University of Lincoln’s new visiting lecturer in 2014, Jason has fully immersed himself in his professorial role. He says that he was flattered and excited to pass on the knowledge he had accrued over the years.
It also seems that being back in the county of his youth has given his lectures a sense of nostalgia for other revolutionary ideals.
His teaching style appears almost provocative, as he explains his ambition is to ignite a fire under his Computer Science and Product Design students. “When I give lectures, I always try to have some sort of punky ideas where I rip stuff up a bit, because really the job of a student is to disagree, to rip it up and to start again, or pull things apart and find out how they work.
“I grew up watching films like Quadrophenia, listening to punk music and dressing up as a new romantic. I sometimes wonder if the zest for revolution has been lost a little bit in the digital age. So I invest my lectures with an iconoclastic edge.”
The inventors of the future are working on the next big products from the heart of the campus, and Jason explains that Lincolnshire is harbouring young talents that will bring in the next cutting edge technologies to the world.
“You know the BB-8 robot from Star Wars? One of our students has designed that as a seat which would propel you forwards around the room. He’s done all of the CAD work and bought the prototype motors, these weird omni-directional wheels and electric motors, and he’s using Arduino. It’s very cool.
“Someone else has designed something called a Festival of One, which is a kind of wearable coat which has speakers and a screen built into it. One of the students is making a cycling helmet which has sensors which can detect cars and enable you to ride more safely, that’s a beautiful piece of product design.
“One of the things Lincolnshire needs to be taking advantage of is you can be located just about anywhere in the digital age. As long as you have a fat data pipe and a good connection to the internet, anything is possible.
“Lincolnshire is full of engineers, creative thinkers and problem solvers. We are so well set up to be an economy for the future. We could smash it in the next few years if we all get behind the right companies.
“The next big thing? Mind control.
“You can already buy headsets that can control your gadgets. Also, augmented reality will overtake virtual reality as the go to platform for gaming and marketing. Plus, driverless cars will become a concrete reality.”