Despite it being the first time either of us had spent living alone, or at least away from home and familiar surroundings, Alex and I had settled into university life quicker than either of us could have expected. We’d become self-sufficient, managing to cook, feed and look after ourselves like most students eventually do. I’d moved from university halls into shared accommodation with a couple of students I had got to know through the university rugby club.
It was fairly basic place, but in a decent part of the town. Three bedrooms, a shared bathroom and an open-plan kitchen-diner downstairs, with one of the bedrooms unexpectedly going free due to the wanderlust of a departed friend. Their buddy had dropped out at the last minute, figuring a gap year was more important than the sports psychology course he’d been accepted for. I’d got on well with my teammates from the start, and we discussed the possibility of me taking the room over a quiet beer following our initial club training session. I took up the offer of renting it without further thought; it felt right, a stroke of luck. It was a typical student house, tidy on the outside, communal areas receiving the occasional hurried clean-up ahead of the arrival of a parent or landlord, and generally a mess behind each of the closed and lockable bedroom doors.
Alex had been a little more selective than me when researching the options, and instead chose to remain on the campus for the first year. The room provided was on the first floor of a new development towards the rear of the campus. It smelled of everything new, from the purpose-built study area, to the freshly painted walls, and the mattress and pillows that were there to be used with the bedding each student had to provide themselves.
There was a simply-equipped cooking area, and a dual-ring electric hob with a microwave oven mounted on the wall above. A neat fold-down table secured to the wall provided enough dining space for two to share a meal. Alex was concerned that, while the rooms were a safe and very convenient option, they may not be the most peaceful or private, but seemed pleasantly surprised by the soundproofing and the solid night’s sleep achieved from day one. Alex’s mother and the twins had helped with moving in, and the place had a homely feel about it. It was within easy reach of the main university buildings, for food or supplies from the campus supermarket, or for visiting the coffee shop, student bars, gym and swimming pool: it had everything.
One night, a couple of weeks in, Alex messaged me. It was a reminder about the second IT session with Professor Khan that evening after lectures finished suggesting we meet at the campus coffee shop and catch up for an hour or so before heading over to the lab. Setting off a little later into the crisp darkness of the evening, I was looking forward to catching up with Alex.
The first couple of weeks had been a blur of attending new lectures and putting names to faces, those of both lecturers and new acquaintances whom we were destined to sit alongside during the forthcoming year. As if that wasn’t exhausting enough, the urge to party was ever foremost in the mind of most students. A chance to play hard after hard work, to be on the loose where before we’d never been too far from home, to push boundaries and to pay the price if we overdid things.
I had certainly made the most of it, largely down to the sports activities I’d signed up for as an extension of what I enjoyed doing back home. Alex, on the other hand, was more reserved. Party invites were mostly through messaging apps, nothing formal, no specific plans just spur of the moment decisions to go out and let off steam. Whether at the student bar on campus, or via a bus ride into town, it was a rite of passage for most, and Alex was no exception. A little more sensible than me, however, Alex knew when to party but also when to stop.
Soon, I was sprawled on the same battered old sofa we chose most times we visited the café, scrolling through my phone with leather jacket and rucksack to my side as an armrest. As I raised my gaze from my phone and looked around, I saw Alex arrive and join the queue at the serving counter. Having looked up at the options on the blackboard Alex then glanced over, pointed at the menu above, raised eyebrows seeking an answer. I gave a thumbs up back immediately, and the usual coffees were ordered.
Alex carefully placed the mugs on the table. I shifted over as I began to explain that a training session followed directly by a big night out was not something I could cope with every week, despite it seeming like a good idea at the time. Alex smiled and handed me a piping hot mug, which had barely cooled enough to hold, let alone drink.
“So, what’s the plan for tonight?” Alex asked, gently blowing at the coffee in-between careful sips. “Are you still keen to get started on it?”
“Sure am,” I said, yawning and stretching my arms out wide across the back of the sofa. “Between late nights out and long lectures in I could do with a distraction that doesn’t involve loads of beer afterwards,” I said, stifling another yawn.
Since our initial meeting at Professor Khan’s taster session we had devised a plan and were ready to discuss it with the professor. I had managed to source a decent amount of video footage through the online storage service my dad and I had signed up to. It was the back catalogue of our holidays, the soundtrack of our lives so far, and I was hoping that it was going to be enough to create the solution we’d been discussing with the professor. Finishing our drinks, we gathered up bags and jackets, pocketed the sugars and milk cartons as emergency rations, and headed down the long corridor again, out into the courtyard and in the direction of the technology and sciences block.
When we entered the IT lab the number of students gathered seemed a little smaller than last time, but I thought this was perhaps just because we were early. Theodore, the student we’d seen the previous week, was positioned in the same spot at the front, doing the same thing, but keeping his head down and focussed on his laptop. This time he decided not to share things with the rest of the group, but did raise his head briefly, making eye contact first with Alex and then with me. Alex was convinced that his face was familiar, but nothing was joining up the dots at that moment, the cogs would have to continue to turn. We sat in the same place as on our previous visit, perched on bar stools, laptops glowing into life, connecting them to the charging cables poking through the desk and waiting for the campus Wi-Fi to kick in.
“Hello, everyone, how are we all doing?” announced Khan, as he breezed through his office door at the back, sidestepping and replacing stools that had been left out, and discarding the plastic cups he’d collected into the recycling bin before stopping to chat to us. “So, any further thoughts on what you two want to do since we spoke last week?” he said. Alex deferred, directing Khan’s gaze in my direction.
“Okay, we had a talk through it all and I think we’ve got a plan,” I said, turning briefly towards my laptop screen. Alex nodded as I continued. “It would be great if I could help my dad by creating something based on the technology you described that you were working with not so long ago. Reckon it could make a massive difference.”
“I’d be delighted to help with that,” Khan said, smiling and rubbing his hands together eagerly. “I can see you’re keen. Good, good. You know, so far the only other enthusiastic feedback I’ve had has been from Theo.” He nodded towards the front of the lab where Theo was still feathering away at the keyboard with his fingertips, breaking away occasionally to scribble something on the notebook beside him. “Listen,” Khan said, as he took a stool from under a work surface and sat down “The important thing in all of this is not the actual system build. The coding, the operational parameters, the API based platform are all there ready to go. It’s down to the input material you’ll be able to source for customisation, that’ll be the critical ingredient.”
I turned my laptop to face Khan, and Alex shuffled forward to get a better look. Clicking on a desktop icon, selecting a file, then a sub file, I brought up hundreds of identical mini file icons, each with a different reference, date and indication of the amount of data enclosed. I clicked on one near the bottom right of the screen, and scrolled downwards. It was dated a few years before. It also contained several sub files. I selected the top one and, after a brief buffering icon, the screen filled with a family scene at Christmas. An open fire crackled and sparked in the brick hearth. A crisp winter morning could be seen through large glass sliding doors at the rear of the room, bright clear blue above, with the sun hanging low in the sky. An excited dog was scurrying around in the garden, barking and biting at the thin layer of snow that had fallen overnight.
A woman entered the room, stepping over piles of unopened presents and offering a tray of food to an elderly couple sat together on the sofa. The camera lens followed her steps back; she hid her face coyly, waved and smiled as she stepped by. “Mmm, home-made mince pies, that’s what Christmas is all about,” chuckled the cameraman. “Wait a minute! Stand by your beds everyone, here’s the dirty stop out. And … action!” The door eased open to reveal a familiar face among the gathering. It was me, eyes squinting against the brightness of the room, an embarrassed smile on my face. The camera closed in on me as I blinked, another face joining me in an embrace, cheek to cheek, the camera now taking selfie-style footage: it was me and Dad together. “Merry Christmas, Joel, thanks for coming son. Glad you could fit us in on Christmas morning!” My dad loved embarrassing me, and had been aware that I had perhaps overdone it with my friends at the local pub the night before.
I was a few years younger, blonde hair much shorter in a crew cut, and wearing chequered pyjama bottoms with my local rugby club hoody as a makeshift dressing gown. Alex later told me that the interaction with my dad was nothing like how their own father was with them; they had nothing as warm and full of sentiment like this documented in any format, mainly because it had rarely happened.
Feeling the colour fill my face, I hit the escape button, mildly embarrassed but keen to get across the amount of material I had for the project. “Got stacks of this,” I said. “Dad was,” I paused, “is, always the first to get the camera out when the occasion arises.”
“This is perfect, isn’t it?” said Alex, tapping the screen as Khan briefly broke away.
“Yes, it’s a great start, but bear with me. Let me just make sure everyone’s got what they need for this evening, then I’ll come back and we’ll get you going. We’ve got a couple of hours, which should be plenty.”
Khan proceeded to float from one student to another, with the exception of Theodore, who seemed to have had his head buried in the keyboard since we’d entered the room.
The professor called us over as he made his way up the central aisle between the workstations towards his office at the back. I followed him in, partially closed laptop in hand, Alex behind me, notepad at the ready. Pulling up two chairs, we sat at Khan’s meeting table as he rattled his hands across his keyboard, eyes trained on dual monitors on the desk in front of him. “I’m going to send you the main files, coding sequences, core algorithms and some of the test examples we used when we helped on the documentary I told you about,” explained Khan. “There are also several basic user guides; we developed those so that the family could outsource any further work required as their son’s condition changed. It meant they could update it without the need for our input. Still all copyrighted by the university, of course, but theirs to adapt as required.” I was excited, things were starting to gather pace.
Khan promised he’d email the files to us both that evening. I listened intently as the professor began to delve deeper into the project, explaining the various nuances, how to import the recordings and balance the acoustics, and the many other detailed steps we would have to take to create something that would work for my dad.
We continued working on our developments on a daily basis, meeting at Alex’s studio room, where it was more suited for two to be working on laptops: peaceful and quiet, and ideal for bouncing ideas off one another. Alex seemed to enjoy seeing more and more of the footage from my family life, although I detected that there was some frustration at not being able to share something similar with me. The plan was to create an initial prototype, the material we had was plentiful but we were struggling to pull some of the final pieces together and would need help from the professor again.
The early signs were encouraging; from a couple of brief excerpts we had recreated several sentences by importing the audio elements from the video footage, using the algorithm to then recognise and then piece together the words input via the keyboard. It was a bit like throwing all of the Scrabble tiles into a box and the program would then select each in the correct order based on the word instructions typed into the keyboard. I was becoming engrossed with it, sometimes completing hours of work up at Alex’s then returning to my own place to finish off more editing. It was a time consuming process, but once I understood the steps I could expand it rapidly, there just weren’t enough hours in the day.
Alex was respectful of the fact that this was my quest and was happy to stay in the background, able to offer a fresh perspective on the project in contrast to my own immersion in what we were trying to create.