So what’s all this Black Friday stuff about anyway?

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Black Friday queues outside Currys PC World. It all looks remarkably civilised!

This Friday isn’t any old Friday. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have probably have heard that it’s Black Friday – the day after US Thanksgiving which has come to herald the start of Christmas shopping. It’s usually the case that anything that’s big in the US tends to be big over here. And Black Friday is no exception.

After an inauspicious arrival in the UK in 2013 (which saw very little interest from the British public), the following year saw rather too much interest from British bargain hunters resulting in virtual riots in several supermarkets, particularly over super cheap flat screen TVs (mostly badged Polaroid).

Since then, the phenomenon has grown slowly but surely with more of an emphasis on online sales and also focusing over a longer period rather than just a day in order to prevent more mindless violence over consumer goods.

I was asked to give a quote for the Argos website about Black Friday for its website which you can see below. I also thought I’d write a piece on the origins of Black Friday for Shiny Shiny.

These, it seems are still open to some debate, despite the official version of events telling us that the term Black Friday comes from when retailers collectively move out of making a loss (in the red) to turning a profit (in the black).

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Our favourite Mannequin Challenge so far – underwater with the Little Rock Trojans swim team

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There’s certainly nothing new about The Mannequin Challenge. I first became aware of the  latest phenomenon during the US election when Hillary Clinton and her entourage filmed one on their plane.

Since then the world has gone mad with every man and his dog (quite literally in the case of this one featuring a very statuesque boxer dog) filming the Mannequin Challenge and setting it to the song Black Beatles by Rae Sremmurd – indeed it all seems reminiscent of The Harlem Shake a few years back, remember that.

However, I really like this one below from the Little Rock Trojans swim team in the US because it’s one of those that you watch and you really do think ‘How on earth did they do that?’

For Shiny Shiny today I’ve reviewed my Top 5 Mannequin Challenges so far. As this particular viral phenomenon fades, it makes me wonder what’s coming next.

The beauty of the world we live in now, is that broadcasters no longer dictate the next trend, it’s us the viewers! No doubt the next viral phenomenon is already being incubated somewhere, ready to be unleashed into the world.

YouTube’s Kevin Allocca talks about how video streaming is influencing mainstream, including John Lewis!

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Last week I went to Google’s swanky new HQ in London’s King’s Cross for a talk about trends in video streaming with YouTube. Apart from being told by an overly zealous security guard that I couldn’t take pictures of the building (a bit rich from a company that never asked me for my permission to take pictures of where I live!) it all went very well.

The main speaker was Kevin Allocca (pictured above) who talked very articulately about the influence that YouTube is having on mainstream culture (particularly TV broadcasting, but advertising too) as well as the company’s recent partnerships with top vloggers/YouTubers as part of its #MadeForYou campaign.

These include Humza Arshad (pictured below) who has over 300,000 subscribers on his Humza Productions Bad Man YouTube channel  and Dino Tokio who has over 550,000 subscribers on her lifestyle and fashion channel, both of whom were at the launch event.

 

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Actor, comedian and vlogger Humza Arshad has built up a large audience thanks to his popular Bad Man videos

Starting with a history of the service (did you know the first YouTube video, Me At the Zoo , dates back to April 23rd 2005), he began by talking about some of the viral sensations that YouTube has witnessed over the course of its history.

As well as all the obvious ones, such as the Ice Bucket Challenge and the more recent Mannequin Challenge, he also talked about the Whisper Challenge where you have to decipher what someone is saying while wearing noise cancelling headphones (similar to what we called ‘Chinese whispers’ when were young).

Supposedly created by vlogger Joe Sugg for his Thatcher Joe channel, and picked up by mainstream US chatshow host Jimmy Fallon, it powerfully shows the influence that vloggers are having on mainstream media. However, an even better example is the recent John Lewis ad featuring animals on a trampoline which was undoubtedly inspired by YouTube clips uploaded several years earlier.

For example he showed a clip of a boxer dog jumping on a trampoline made in 2007 which has so far been watched 3.5 million times. Then there’s this one below featuring foxes dancing on a trampoline which has been viewed over 27 million times since 2008!

John Lewis may be never knowingly undersold, but clearly it’s knowingly ‘borrowed’ or at least been influenced by the internet!

To read the article in full click here.

The Grand Tour review – why Amazon Prime has breathed new life into Clarkson and Co

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With Grand Tour, Hammond, Clarkson and May show there’s still life in the old dogs yet

Let’s face it, it’s rare that TV programmes live up to the hype, especially ones featuring three post middle-age blokes talking about cars. But while I thought Top Gear (TG) was getting a bit stale and boring, Grand Tour (GT) – which aired or at least appeared on Amazon Prime on Friday – seems to have rejuvenated Clarkson, Hammond and May.

Maybe they are just sticking two fingers up to the BBC which had no choice in choosing not to renew the Top Gear contract after Clarkson’s fracas with Top Gear producer, Oisin Tymon. Certainly in the opening studio sequences they played up to the fact that May has been fired from just about everything he had ever done and that Hammond’s record at keeping jobs isn’t that much better, all of which was to make the point that Clarkson wasn’t (technically) fired from the BBC.

In a sense, this made the three of them seem much more real and vulnerable. There was a camaraderie among them that’s always been there, but somehow seemed much stronger, like this time it mattered much more. That they have a point to prove.

They all knew their roles on the show – Clarkson the pompous, overblown buffoon, Hammond the over-eager school boy and May the bumbling, thoughtful one. And they played them out to perfection.

There was a light heartedness, comic theme running throughout the show too although at times the jokes did wear a bit thin, especially after the ‘death’ of the first guest – did we really need them to pretend another two reserve guests ‘died’ to get the joke? And similarly the pretend fight with the Americans in the audience over which nation has the best airforce also got a bit dull.

That said, there were some genuinely funny moments including the ‘Eboladrome’, a new racing track circuit that looks like the shape of the Ebola virus, and some of the shows’ ‘stings’ – idents for new features – which were so laughably bad, they were good.

The premise of Grand Tour is of course that the three presenters pitch up in a different location for each show. For the first one it was California, USA while next week it’s off to Johannesburg in South Africa. It’s a clever ploy to get people in those countries involved directly in the show and no doubt drive Amazon sales in those territories too, but it does make for some exciting backdrops, especially the opening aerial shots of this first episode (called Holy Trinity) which were mind blowing in their expanse, as well as their expense.

Which brings us to the show’s production values. I don’t know that much about 4K technology (for a full technical explanation read this piece here in Forbes from my tech journalist friend John Archer), but I do know it looked truly spectacular. The opening sequences across the desert in California were breathtaking as were the shots of the high end hybrids (Ferrari, McLaren and Porsche) around the race circuit in the Algarve. In fact, in places, Grand Tour was truly cinematic with the super wide aspect ratio used to great effect.

Was this the best piece of TV ever? No of course not. In my opinion it was a little too long and a little self indulgent in places. But there’s no doubt that GT was much better than the BBC’s latest TG with Chris Evans, Matt Le Blanc and the rest and better than the last few series of Top Gear featuring Clarkson, Hammond and May too. It looked extraordinary, like the kind of TV programme you might expect from a cash-rich e-commerce company keen to break into the broadcasting arena.

And while the BBC which is funded by the licence payer may not be quaking in its boots, other commercial broadcasters like ITV should be more than a little bit worried about the new broadcasting, or more specifically video streaming, landscape.

The Grand Tour Official Trailer below:

#Ford Driving Skills for Life day at London’s ExCel

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Me dressed as an idiot trying to recreate the feeling of being drunk at the Ford Driving Skills for Life event

Today I’ve been at The ExCel Centre in London’s Docklands on an interesting and educational driving day held by Ford. Called Ford Driving Skills for Life, it’s an event aimed at younger drivers who are more likely to crash their vehicles in their first 12 months of holding a licence than at any other time in in their lives, largely through inexperience.

The event has been going for 4 years in the UK but around 10 in the US and it’s a good opportunity for young drivers to improve their skills in a safe environment in situations that they may not yet have encountered. It also shows them the dangers of using a mobile device at the wheel and how drugs and drink can impair their driving performance.

Various activities were on offer free of charge to those who had pre-registered and although I didn’t try them all out, I did try out a few including the one above where I had to simulate the effect of drinking by literally putting on a pair of ‘beer goggles’ and various weights and restrictors around my joints including elbows, ankles and neck. I then had to try walking along a white line before kicking a football at a target as fast as possible.

Not surprisingly, it was all a little bit tricky especially the kicking the football bit which I completely missed first time round – although some people who see me play 5 a side on a Thursday night will say there’s nothing unusual in that!

I also tried out the drugs simulation kit which involved wearing noise cancelling headphones which made some strange sounds, a different pair of goggles and a device that was strapped to my wrist which vibrated the whole time. Very odd, although like the earlier drunk test it didn’t improve my football skills at all and my balance was even worse.

In another activity – which is quite topical given the recent decision to increase penalty points and fines for using a mobile phone while driving – I had to drive around a course with various distractions.

One of these was to try and take a selfie while navigating around a course of cones – I just about managed it at very slow speeds but it was blurred and I can only begin to imagine the carnage I would have caused trying to do it at 70mph rather than 10mph.

I also had to tune the radio into 5Live while turning the wheel and turn the volume up full which was particularly tricky as well as distracting. I will upload the video on Monday so you can see me completely distracted behind the wheel.

I also interviewed quite a few people. Here’s an interview I did with Eloise Peabody-Rolf, Young Driver Ambassador of I Am Road Smart all about the dangers young people face when getting behind a wheel for the first time.

Daily Telegraph: Bring apprenticeships into focus

Daily Telegraph apprenticeships.JPGReally pleased with my page in The Telegraph‘s Business Section today about apprenticeships and the apprenticeship levy. Not that many companies seem to know about the 0.5 per cent levy which all companies with a pay bill of £3m will have to pay from next April.

So anything that draws attention to the issue has to be a good thing. Also, with graduates leaving University with so much debt (average is over £40,000)  it makes sense for some people to go the apprenticeship route, rather than going to college.

I think it’s time we stopped looking at people without degrees as second class citizens and started opening up more routes into careers for people with talent regardless of whether they have got a degree or not.

Of course that means offering high levels of training which is where the apprenticeship levy comes in.

Star Wars Propel Quadcopter launch at Madame Tussaud’s

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For once Russell Brand had nothing to say

Last night I went to the launch of a new range of Star Wars drones from Propel at Madame Tussaud’s. It’s an interesting venue. Absolutely huge and labyrinthine inside although a bit shabby in places. I’ve been there a number of times as a member of public and it’s always nice to go there when you don’t have to queue for hours. I’m surprised more companies don’t hold press events here – maybe it’s really expensive.

As well as the wax celebrities (see me with Russell Brand above) there were a few real ones too, including stand-up comedian Leigh Francis (you know Keith Lemon or Avid Merrion if you remember Bo! Selecta) who looked virtually unrecognisable in a huge hat.

But the real stars of the evening – once they finally graced us with their presence – were the Star Wars Quadcopters themselves.

Make no mistake, these could be this year’s must have Christmas toys if the manufacturer Propel pulls its finger out. However, unfortunately it seems that limited production this side of Christmas will mean that most of us, including press, will have to wait until next year to get our hands on one.

I have to confess to knowing very little about Star Wars, not having seen it since 1977 when I was a kid, but I’m pretty sure these Quadcopters will, quite literally, fly off the shelves.

What I liked is the way you could use the accompanying app as a flight simulator to train yourself to fly one and you could then take on your friends in a laser battle at speeds of up to 35mph.  Get hit three times and your quadcopter will make a controlled emergency landing. How clever is that?

Another clever feature is that the Quadcopters actually talk to you, telling you to the put the AA batteries!

At the time of writing I’m still a little unsure of exact pricing, but looking at the Toys R Us website it seems that you can buy a Speeder Bike quadcopter for around £200. Not cheap, but what price can you put on endless hours of fun battling your mates in the skies. Z-160722-Propel-0580-Star_Wars-Tie_Advanced-Box-Open V3.jpg

Stopping phoning/texting while driving. Can technology provide an answer?

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This week police begin a clampdown on using a mobile phone while you are driving – and not before time. This follows a series of high profile cases including a lorry driver who killed four people in a car (a woman and her three children) because he was scrolling through his phone looking for music while driving.

As a result of this case, and many more, the law is changing from next year so that anyone caught using a mobile phone while driving will get a fine of £200 and 6 points on their licence, rather than the current 3 points and £100 fine. It’s all a step in the right direction, though arguably still not enough of a deterrent.

But it got me thinking. I seem to remember a conversation I had with Ford a couple of years about technology they were working on to block the driver from being able to make/receive calls, texts etc while they are at the wheel of a car without preventing passengers from using their phones.

It strikes me that, generally speaking, car manufacturers have done an awful lot in helping people integrate their mobile phones into cars, primarily for entertainment purposes, but perhaps not enough to deter them from using them to make and receive calls.

Likewise, telephone manufacturers make it awfully tempting for some people to check their emails etc. at the wheel thanks to pings and chimes that aren’t always that easy to switch off.

Personally, I think the only way you are going to prevent people from using their phones at the wheel is at the very least to make the phone default to the Do Not Disturb setting so the driver isn’t tempted to take a quick peek at the screen.

But I think that’s probably not enough. A much better solution would be to introduce a jamming system that prevents the driver from using the phone at all.

I’ve been reading about a solution here which was first announced four years ago, but I wondered if any car manufacturers have actually implemented such a system yet. I’m not familiar with any solutions yet, but hopefully it’s only a matter of time before common sense prevails.

In the eyes of an animal: experiencing VR like never before (and looking stupid in the process)

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Oh how ridiculous do I look with this giant piece of foliage on my head?

Talking of animals (see post here about Buster the Boxer of John Lewis fame), on Wednesday night I experienced what it must be like to be one of four different animals: a mosquito, dragon fly, frog and and an owl.

It was one of many cool exhibits at the Wired Audi Awards at Victoria House in London’s Bloomsbury Square. So cool in fact that it actually won best Innovation in Experience Design at the awards.

Now of course I’ve put a headset on and experienced VR in the past, but trust me this isn’t like any other VR I’ve ever experienced.

Developed by Marshmallow Laser Feast for a festival in Cumbria’s Grizedale Forest (they must be cool, check out their website), it’s like being on a bad trip or something out of a Cronenberg movie.

Called In The Eyes of an Animal and filmed in 360 degrees using drones of course, the footage takes you on a journey from – what the developer’s imagine, based on scientific understanding – each animal’s point of view.

To make things a tad more realistic than watching the YouTube video below you have to wear a large rounded piece of foliage on your head and strap a backpack to you in order to simulate, say, the buzzing of a dragon fly as it flies around the forest.

At the end of each ‘chapter’ the animal is eaten (think ‘there was an old lady who swallowed a fly’) and it’s on to the next animal until you end up with one of nature’s finest predators, the owl.

I really have no idea how realistic it is but it looks and feels amazing and if I’d watched it in a field in Grizedale Forest during a festival I’d probably think I’d just eaten some rather exotic looking mushrooms.

John Lewis ad: Cute animals but what’s with the phone box?

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Like 7 million other people I’ve just watched the John Lewis Christmas ad on YouTube. It’s OK, it didn’t make me cry but it was kind of touching in the usual schmaltzy way and anything which involves animals jumping on trampolines has to be worth watching.

How did they do that? I do hope that no animals were hurt in the process and the hedgehog spikes didn’t damage the fabric so the owners had to take the trampoline back to John Lewis.

It also wasn’t so weird and pervy as last year’s 25 million views and counting, Man On The Moon John Lewis ad which did make me cry but for all the wrong reasons. The only weird thing about this one I thought (apart from the large amounts of snow, of course) were the shots of the BT telephone box outside the garden.

I mean where on earth can you find a telephone box these days? Did they have to cut out the shots of someone urinating in it? Did it even have a working telephone inside? Did BT pay for this kind of product placement and if so why? So many questions.

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Anyway, nevermind just how obsolete phone boxes are. Seven  million views after 2 days on YouTube got me thinking about how TV is fast becoming obsolete too. I haven’t had a working TV aerial for ages and the only reason I’m watching TV at all is because I have a YouView box that streams ‘content’ from all of the players whenever I want.

Christmas TV ads may have become as big an institution as the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day, but the difference is you don’t have to ‘consume’ them at 3pm, you can do it at any time – and you don’t need a TV either.

Come to think of it you don’t need to use a phonebox to make a phonecall either. Who knew the 21st century could be this much fun?