Digital Sealing Wax and Virtual String

by Saul Nassé, 10 October 2016

There's an old British phrase about getting by with sealing wax and string. Literally, it might mean making do with materials you've got to hand, figuratively it might mean deploying imagination in the face of practical adversity. I was in Hobart, Australia recently and both meanings came to mind.

I met the new CEO of English Australia, Brett Blacker, last year in Cambridge. He was in the early stages of planning his first English Australia conference as the big cheese of the organisation, which brings together English learning professionals from across the country. We riffed together happily over breakfast and had some very aligned thoughts about the importance of creativity in learning. I was delighted when Brett asked me to make the opening keynote address at the conference.

So I found myself waiting to go on stage in Hobart, capital of Tasmania to give, this speech (which you can watch on YouTube). It was an interesting moment, as I was relying on sealing wax and string. Or in this case a selfie stick and gaffer tape…

Another of my blogs was all about Virtual Reality, and we've already been busy experimenting with the technology. The narrative of my speech was that creative skills are more important in our digital world, that creativity has to be at the heart of learning, and that we educators have to be more creative than ever to serve our students well. So our experiments with Google Cardboard virtual reality on a smartphone felt like a perfect example of creativity.

We had filmed some brilliant material in 3D Virtual Reality that gives a candidate a near to real-life experience of taking part in a speaking test when they watch the video on a smartphone through the Google Cardboard. My cunning plan for the climax of the speech was to demonstrate the technology live on stage, giving people a view of what I was seeing through Google Cardboard as I moved my head around. We'd worked it all out beforehand, connecting the phone up to an Apple TV box, and connecting the box to a projector. We tested it in Cambridge. Several times. It worked. Until…

Australia! Not due to some corrosive southern hemispheric effect, but, wait for it, an Apple upgrade. We found out there was no solution the night before the speech. So in the hotel, after eating wallaby tapas, we decided we had to learn from the speech I had yet to make, and get creative. I thought, why not go analogue and simply point a camera at the phone, and link that to the projector? Not a bad idea, and the brilliant English Australia events company confirmed to my colleague Carmen Le they would bring a camera in the morning.

And so the morning… The idea didn’t look so bright after all. Trying to point a camera at a phone while you move the phone around would be hard work for a top camera operator, and is certainly beyond a chief executive. Time for another moment of creativity. Time for the sealing wax. Time for a selfie stick!

My colleague Sujata Stead, chief executive of OET, our medical English test, did a mercy dash to K Mart for a selfie stick. We put the phone in the cradle and stuck the Digital sealing wax blog Saul selfie stick imagecamera to the stick with gaffer tape. It could have been string, but we had the tape. Add about a dozen adaptors and we were in business; the camera having a fixed view of a phone, we could move around – pictured above in action. 

Thirty minutes later I was heading on stage with my fingers crossed, embarking on the speech and hoping, just hoping, that it would work. And it did. Our imagination had triumphed over practical adversity. Our sealing wax and string had triumphed over an Apple upgrade. And best of all, my speech on creativity had proved its own point.

One postscript on creativity… While in Hobart I managed a short trip to the superb MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. The highlight was the Cloaca Professional (pictured top), 2010 by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. It’s the human digestive system reimagined through science and art. Creativity with a capital C.

Saul Nassé 
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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