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Dr Panagiotis Fotaris photo

Podcast: Catching up with Dr Panagiotis Fotaris

We speak to Dr Panagiotis Fotaris of the School of Computing, Engineering and Maths who uses escape rooms and virtual reality in his teaching.

Dr Fotaris also discusses his alter-ego as a mash-up artist and DJ.

Listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ in the link above. Alternatively, most of the interview is transcribed on this page, in the read more section.

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Hello. Welcome to this University of Brighton podcast, just the second one of 2020, we’re well underway now. I’m Richard Newman and my guest this week is Panayiotis Fotaris. Panayiotis is a principal lecturer in the School of Competing Engineering and Maths and leads on the undergraduate games courses we have here his teaching is innovative and unique think escape rooms and virtual reality. We spoke about how games can aid learning across all courses and schools, got to know about some interesting hobbies and he started by explaining what he does here at the university.
 
I joined the university about two years ago and I was just teaching the digital media students but then my role changed and I became the course leader for the games courses and I’m teaching a few modules on games and also on web technologies. At the same time, as a course leader, I tried to collaborate as mentors as often as possible with students to come up with ideas and collaborate with other schools as well.
 
Great. Quite a lot to get stuck into. We’re going to have a chat about games, about escape rooms, how they can be used in a learning setting, all these kinds of things. Let’s go back to basics and get to know you get first. Doing a bit of research, you’ve had a number of former careers, so how did it all start how we got to this this place now?
 
Right. So, as you can probably tell by my accent, I’m not from the UK, I’m Greek. I started my career in Greece, I started teaching there. Second, education and then at a university. At the same time, I was trying to do other gigs to survive, basically, working for film festivals, graphic designer, web designer and all of those things and then at some point after that, you know, I thought I cannot live here anymore. I think I thought that probably relocating to the UK would be a good opportunity for me, which is what I did. And I was lucky enough to be able to start a career from scratch in the U.K. So, I moved to the U.K in Halloween 2012, I worked for King’s College in London for a year, as a learning technologist because of the recent background of my phd on learning technologies. And then I decided just sort of creating learning material for lecturers to become a lecturer myself so I can create my own stuff. So, I left work and went to the University of West London where I worked for a year as a lecturer in computing, I then went to the university of East London and there I was the course leader for the digital media course and two years ago I came down to Brighton and joined your team here.
 
So, I’ve been looking at your university profile. I guess we could concentrate on any number of former jobs we are going to get to the meat of what you do in a moment. One of your former jobs says here radio producer, so I have a lot of pressure to get this right. Given that you are here to talk about all things gaming, we’ve got graphic designer, developer, DJ, mashup artists, can you tell us about what you were doing there?
 
Right. So basically, what a mashup is, you get an instrumental version of a song, you could get a guitar riff, you could get a bass line, you get the vocals and then you use them to make your own Frankenstein monster so you can make your own song, that sounds completely different to the original version of the song. Of course, you know, some people said that this is illegal by you know, you’re not charging people to listen to your music. So, I’ve actually been contacted by the original artist on a few occasions, but that was because they really liked the mash up so there was no lawyer after me. So, this stuff is quite creative because you make something new from all bits and pieces and it’s all on SoundCloud for everyone to hear.
 
How can we find that if anyone is curious?
 
So, my DJ nickname is BYNAR. It’s actually an alien race in Star Trek because I’m a Trekkie. Okay, we’ll get to that I think. Yeah. So, it’s BYNAR on SoundCloud.com/bynar or mixedcloud.com/bynar for my podcasts and radio shows.
 
So, I was working as a radio producer in Greece and I was working as a music journalist as well it didn’t pay much but it was just something extra on the side and I really enjoyed that. And I was DJ there as well for twelve years and that did pay some of those bills. So, I had this kind of interest, interest in music but because of my studies, I wanted to actually start making some money based on my studies. That’s the reason why I thought this is fun but I can’t do this forever, so just go to academia, that’s what I did.
 
Yeah. Journalism does not pay much. Okay, we’re here to talk about your expertise in games and how they are used in education. So what sort of thing are we talking?
 
Right. So, I’m an advocate of what we call game-based learning because nowadays the attention span is getting lower and lower. So, we have to find other ways to engage students and make them motivated and experience what we call in gaming ‘flow’. So, one way to do that is just by using games. So, gamification, used to be a big buzz word and game-based learning. This is where my research is actually focused on and as a matter of fact, there’s a huge national conference, The European conference for game-based learning, this year it is going to actually take place here at the University. It’s going to be taking place at the end of on September, bringing together about 200 people from all over the world to come and talk about how to use games for learning. I am also a fan of escape rooms, now escape rooms became popular in the last three, four years, and now it’s becoming an increasing market. So, there’s money to be made there commercially, but we can also use them for training purposes. That is a kind of a new idea, so research wise, there haven’t been many papers published about that, although nowadays, you know, the last couple of years people are actually trying this in academia, universities and academic settings. This is what are we trying to do here as well, so we even had students making their own educational escape rooms- as a matter of fact, four of our students last year, they made an educational escape room to teach programming in virtual reality and that was a short listed at the student game competition at this European conference for gamed based learning.
 
There’s lots of different routes you could go in terms of game-based learning. Treat me like an idiot as it’s something that I do not know enough about. When we are talking about virtual reality, this is something we are hearing a lot about, and it seems to be quite a rapidly developing technology. How far can it go?
 
Well you know, virtual reality is when you put on a headset, so everything that you use is just digital, so you do not see anything outside of your headsets and VR has been with us for ages, but it’s never managed to actually catch up. The problem that we’ve got is that, okay, you put the thing on which sometimes can be really uncomfortable, but you’ve got all those cables, so you need a lot of space and all that, you need a very powerful computer to do that. However, nowadays things are progressing, technology wise. You’ve got now the Oculus Quest, so there’s a new headset, VR headset that doesn’t have any wires, doesn’t require a connection to a computer. So, you just put the thing on and you’re good to go. You can experience VR and we actually have a virtual reality lab in Cockcroft, fourth floor where our students actually develop their own VR projects and you can use virtual reality to do things that you wouldn’t be able to do in real life for various reasons. For example, you know, if you want to become a pilot, right, and you want to fly, it’s really quite expensive to fly a real plane like, what happens if you crash a plane, but with a flash simulator in virtual reality, you experience the whole thing, but it doesn’t cost you anything. So that is one way to use virtual reality for educational purposes.
 
Yeah. I mean, I guess that the possibilities for VR are endless, really. I mean, it would help people with medical conditions as well. But like you say, from training, will the situation always be that the technology can keep on advancing but people would always want it to be more real? How quickly is that developing? I guess we’re getting to a point where it’s becoming a lot more popular and I guess that is because the technology is starting to make things feel more real.
 
Sure, it’s becoming more mature and it’s becoming more accessible. I could say and also, you’ve got companies like Sony with PlayStation VR and all that and now we’re going to have the next generation of consoles coming out and they’re also going to be supporting VR, especially Sony, because they’re ahead of the game compared to Microsoft. So, I think that this is one way to introduce people to VR. So, you begin with games and then you can do the other things, you know, educational VR and also you can use this in museums or you can use it for our cultural heritage now.
 
SO, you walk into a museum, you’ve looked at dinosaur bones and a dinosaur could be walking right in front of you?
 
Well, yeah if you do that with a tablet, that is augmented reality. You have to use just a headset for virtual reality. But yeah, you could actually. Imagine, you’ve got some of those monuments that they’ve stopped to exist because you know, they were just bombed so you could reconstruct them in VR and put the headset on and experience that or see what it was like 2000 years ago in ancient Greece.
 
So, if you were to predict where VR will go and how massive it can become. Would you say it’s going to be a big thing? It’s going to be everywhere?
 
Well, I cannot really say that because that’s what people kept on saying for the past 20 years and it didn’t happen. So, if it becomes affordable for everybody, I think that’s yes, that can happen. But it’s all about marketing nowadays. So, you have to promote it. You have to have some killer app. People know about augmented reality now. Why? Because of Pokémon go, so Pokémon go was a killer app for AR, we still have to find the killer app for VR, although some might say that’s a beat Saber. So, remember a game called Guitar Hero-Guitar hero was a game where you could pretend to be a guitarist. So light beat Saber is something like that. You’ve got light Sabers like the ones that they use in Star Wars and you have to just hit some objects based on the beat of a song, its good exercise, actually. You can come and see students play that on our VR lab. So that is what you can call a killer app for VR.
 
Okay. It’s like 2020’s version of a dance mat. That’s quite active. I played that for the first time in a while, as an arcade game the other day.
 
Talking about arcade games, we’ve got an arcade cabinet at the University.
 
I mean these are the reasons to come to the University Brighton if nothing else.
 
Absolutely, because in the arcade cabinet we can actually upload our students’ games. So, you can not only play old games, but you can play the game that you’ve created or your mates created, which is great.
 
Yeah, I guess you were kind of touching on it just now, but the way that VR becomes popular and explodes is when it becomes accessible to everyone.
 
Absolutely. So, you do not rely on cables and computers anymore and all you have to do is buy a headset and that’s it, this is going to make it much more accessible.
 
Yeah. Let’s talk about escape rooms quickly. Like you said over the last three, four years, they have exploded. With the generation, I guess people in their 30s and 40s, late 20s as well, it kind of takes them back to game shows that people were watching, like the Crystal Maze. So, there’s lots of shows like that so people can go and actually do something similar. Every time I go and do an escape room, the next one’s always more technologically advanced. They’re always moving, always getting much more exciting, just when you think you’ve done the best escape room, you do another one and they’ve taken it to a whole new level. Why have they just exploded like this?
 
True. They’re good fun and I think that now you can use really cheap technology so you can use a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino that don’t cost a lot. We’re talking about, what, 30, 40, 50 quid, tops and you can incorporate some electronics, some technology in your escape room to make it more immersive. And I think the reason why you’ve got this more high-tech escape rooms, nowadays is because of the costs, it’s reducing the cost. The fact that you’ve got accessible technology is really cheap. That gives the escape room design more opportunities to become much more creative. And then also nowadays, companies I’m talking about, big corporations, they want to find some ways to motivate their employees. So, team building exercises instead of just going away for a day and doing a boring team-building exercise, you can take your employees to an escape room and let them play for an hour. I think that’s much better than just putting them in a room to build a bridge with spaghetti.
 
Yeah, it’s great because it does it in a sort of world where there’s lots of pressures on work, family life and all external things. It encourages adult play beyond, you know, exercise and stuff. This is just everyone going back to their childhood. So how do they work and how do they how can they work in teaching?
 
So first of all, the best way to way to incorporate escape rooms. What I think is the best thing to do is, first of all, ask your students to build an escape room, an original escape from themselves, because that makes them think they have to be really creative to do that, because they have-they’re going to have a limited budget they have to be really creative to see how they can make something that is fun and yet cheap. So, you get your students to create an escape room first in a box, because, you know space is an issue. So, you all you need to do is make an escape room in a box, something that’s really portable. You can take that, put them in a room, hide the props and let them experience that and then you can always take this to a different place and try that again. So, then you ask students to collaborate to make an escape room and that helps their soft skills? So, it’s teamwork. It’s being really creative, its problem solving, communication, All of those soft skills. Then you asked students to play an escape from, you know, try to solve those puzzles themselves. So first you involve them making one, then you have them playing one and then you have students actually observe others playing their own game, because then they can see what worked, what didn’t work when they were thinking of the puzzles and everything. So, if you somehow find the time and the energy to make this happen, both making, playing and observing, I think they have a whole holistic experience and here you’re going to be in a much better place.
 
Yeah. I mean, so it creates a different way of learning to what someone might traditionally think of. Keeps it interesting for everyone. Like you said, the attention span is getting shorter and shorter. There must be quite a lot of interest from other subjects and schools as it works naturally with what you teach but the way we’ve been talking about it suggests you could put it in basically any setting?
 
Absolutely. So, for example at the moment I’m working on making an escape room about cyber security. So that is a project I’m working on and I got funding from the university as well.  I’m collaborating with some people and got some funding from Innovate UK as-well. So I’m hopefully I’m going to have some kind of a prototype by the end of this year to test with some staff and students and I think that cyber security is something that even if you’re staff at the university, you have to do this kind of boring training, which most of the time you just watch videos, click next next, next, and do a multiple just question and that’s it. It’s not what I will call really immersive or fun. If you can somehow make people learn about those things by participating in an escape room that is going to be much more memorable, fun and something that it’s not going to sound like a chore anymore. So that’s the thinking behind this.
 
Yeah. So how can you collaborate more? And, you know, in general this could be a big thing across all schools?
 
True. Oh, first of all, at the moment, I’m working with the School of Computing, Engineering, Mathematics, so I’m collaborating with colleagues from our school to build this escape room on cyber security. But the moment we kind of say that we’ve nailed that, then we’re going to reach out to other schools because their methodology is going to be the same, you’re going to be using the same steps to create the educational escape room and the only thing is going to change is the puzzles based on the learning objectives. So, if you know how you’re going to build that then all you need is some subject matter experts to tell you exactly what it is that they want to teach, what they want people to learn. Then you collaborate with experts to come up with new puzzles, so the plan is at the moment do this within our school and then go to Grand parade and see if we can do something with people who do for example, I don’t know, fashion or sound or art.
 
Staying on that subject as well as using all these technologies as learning tools, there’s also lots of expertise there through academics and students who have these skills and you’ve already collaborated with fashion students haven’t you?
 
Yes. That was actually a big success. last year undergraduate students from the Games course, they collaborated with students who do fashion at Grand parade to make a virtual reality catwalk show. So, at the end of every year at Grand Parade, they have this kind of catwalk show and students have to showcase their work. So, we collaborated with students from there and with a course leader, Craig Higgins. Nice bloke. Our students made that VR experience, of course, with the help of our media team here, the technicians did a great job filming student do the catwalk and using a green screen. Our students produced a VR fashion catwalk, basically you put on your headset and you can see models walking and you have your music playing and you just move your head and you can see them appearing. It was a really immersive experience and our students took that to the Graduate Fashion Week in London and from all the universities that were there, all the universities from the UK, It was just us and the university of Portsmouth that had anything in VR. People actually noticed that and after that event, besides the fact that people talked about us on social media, on Linked-In, we got emails from other universities asking them how they did that because they want to do something similar for their own courses.
 
I find VR Fascinating, really because until you’ve tried it, you can’t tell what it is like yet every time you try it, it will be different because of the new technology, because until you’ve tried it It’s really difficult to get your head around, isn’t it? When people are trying it in successful situations like you just described, people are wowed by it. Huge potential.
 
Oh, yeah. And we also plan to use something like this at our open days so that prospective students can experience that and see what our students build. It’s not us lecturers who built that it is the student’s work, these weren’t second year students, not even third year. So, if you’re a second year and you can make something VR that tells you that you something about the quality of work that takes place at the university.
 
Yeah. So, talking about the talent of your very, very talented students and academics, there’s obviously so many different avenues that people can go down once they’ve left university. Lots of different careers, probably loads more now than there were two, three years ago. Do you think that the perception of courses like yours has changed? Because if I go back to when I was at university 15 years ago, there was a very sniffy view on taking traditionally academic subjects. Do you think that now because the skills are becoming so in demand, the perception of these courses has completely changed?
 
Yeah, I want to think so. At least our numbers are increasing, which is a good sign because I’ll tell you something. I mean, five, four years ago when I was still working in London during the open days, we got students, we were introducing games courses, but the parents were saying No, no, no, no, no, you’re not going to study that. You’re just going to be a computer scientist or something like a lawyer, something that does pay the bills. I think that because of those leaps in technology and the promotion, the marketing and all that, people can now see the possibilities and they can now start to think that well, actually, you’re going to make money if you study this. You don’t have to be a lawyer or a dentist to make money. You can even be creative yet keep on making money. So, I think that because of that kind of change of perception, students are probably going to decide that it’s not a big gamble to study games, for example.
 
And without getting too political about it, there’s obviously been a lot of speculation about course fees and the value of undergraduate degrees. What you’re describing and the skills that are going to be in demand going forward, it kind of dispels that myth that these degrees aren’t as valued?
 
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think that it is really important to be creative at what you do. It doesn’t have to be just a dull and dry subject. You need to give students the option to be creative and collaborate because what companies actually value more nowadays are those soft skills and problem solving, creativity, collaboration, communication. So, you have to somehow leave behind all of this traditional teaching style and try to help students to be more creative and learn from their peers.
 
Yeah. And then we’re seeing some of the community benefits that these sorts of technologies can bring as well. We were talking off air about a couple of different projects which have been going on in Brighton. First of all, start by explaining what games jam is and then what you’ve been working on?
 
So, we’ve got a very active student society called the Game Jam Society. So, what they do is they organise or participate in game jams. So, what is a game jam? Basically, you’ve got a limited amount of time. Most of the time it’s about two days, could be 24 hours could be even more. But it’s roughly it’s about two days. They give you a brief and you have those two days that, one day or whatever to make a game from scratch. So, this is what a game jam is. You know, just pizza and coke or whatever and just making games from scratch, collaborating with others. So what our students did last year was in last February, you know, February is the LGBTQ History Month and because Brighton’s really famous for being such a diverse place and it’s all about inclusivity, we decided to organise what we called the game Jam G-A -Y-M jam, which was a game where you have to team up and make games, but the topic was going to be related to the LGBTQ community. So that was a big success. We had about 40 students come here on a weekend to make a game and some really good games and we got even sponsors. We got sponsors from a local game studio, Gerba and Electric Square. They helped us financially. They provided the food they sent some of their team to act as mentors to our students. Centre for Secure and C S R US Centre of secure and intelligent and Usable Systems supported us and of course, we got support from our school and head of school. The vice chancellor was at the awards ceremony at the end. What is it most important is that our students really enjoyed that. We got a buzz going on social media, on Linked-In posts where students actually talked about how great the experience was had about 45000 views, which is good. And because of that, we actually got unity, unity technologies, a massive big company, one of the leading companies in game engines and they have an office in Brighton. They reached out to all students and they wanted our students to collaborate with them so that they could organise their own game jam during the Pride Festival back in the summer. Now they’re going to be on board with us because we plan to organise our new game jam again this February. And Unity wants to help us out.
 
Yeah, really cool. And then there’s been another one as well, a collaboration around International Women’s Day?
 
So, we’ve got really good friends in Women in Games, this organisation supports and promotes women in games because, you know, it’s mostly male dominated, the gaming industry. But this has started to change now. We’ve got people who work in this organisation and they support us and we plan to organise another game jam, this time in collaboration with other universities, with the University of East London and University Portsmouth and we are going to host this game jam, but this is going to be themed after women.
 
I guess it is probably a preconception that that the games industry is dominated by men.  here needs to be a drive to get more women involved in gaming?
 
Yes. So that is one way to do that. So, we can show people that actually you don’t have to be a white bloke to work in the gaming industry. No.
 
Right, really exciting projects coming up, the work sounds great. Sounds like a great place to come to study these kinds of things, it sounds great fun. At the end of every podcast, we ask questions away from work. They’re really simple stuff. Just to get to know you better outside of work. So, the first question would be, what advice would you give to your younger self?
 
Hmm. Right. I guess that’s a tough one. Probably finish my phd faster. Yeah, because it took me a while and focus more on games because I wanted to do games back then, but it was not a big industry back in the day. In Greece, you couldn’t do any of that. I would just say choose your dream.
 
Yeah, I guess. Again, it’s come back to that. It’s a lot more socially acceptable to chase those kinds of dreams now. If you could pick a completely different subject to study at the University of Brighton that you know of. What would it be?
 
Fine art.
 
Can you pick a favourite place in Sussex?
 
I always loved seven sisters.
 
If you could give visitors to Brighton and the area a tip of what to do or experience if they are here just for a weekend, what would it be?
 
Go for a swim in the sea. If they come in summer, they should just do that.
 
Tell us something interesting about you that lots of people don’t know?
 
Well, I probably already mentioned the mash-ups that I make and the DJ gigs. I really enjoy selecting music for people as well. Sot the music that we used at the catwalk show last year, I curated the catwalk show with regards to music. So, I enjoy picking music and if you can think of any DJ gigs in Brighton, give me give me a call.
 
Okay. I will pop your details in the podcast description so that people can just click through and listen to your mash ups and send any details. And finally, if you could pick three people to come if you were hosting a dinner party… Who would they be and why?
 
Right. Well, they’ll probably be Robert Smith, Gary Newman and William Shatner. Because although some might say that they’re not that young anymore. They still remain relevant and they always manage to reinvent themselves and remain relevant.
 
Yeah. Talking of William Shatner and you’ve also mentioned you’re a Trekkie. So how excited are you or about Picard? Are you’re excited, a bit nervous?
 
Well, to be honest with you, I’m excited. I think that they’re not going to mess this up. Hopefully.
 
Thank you to Panayiotis Fotaris. As I mentioned throughout the podcast, you’ll find links to mash ups in the podcast description. Well worth a listen, if you want to find out more about our games courses and the projects coming up Visit https://www.brighton.ac.uk/index.aspx and of course keep an eye on our social channels. All of our podcasts are available on most podcast apps like Spotify or Apple Podcast, just search the University of Brighton. You can listen to previous episodes there as well. We’ll be back next week. Thanks for listening.

Stephanie Thomson • January 28, 2020


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