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Interview with the Chief Information Officer (CIO): Lee Cowie, Chief Technology Officer, Merlin Entertainments

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Interview with the Chief Information Officer (CIO): Lee Cowie, Chief Technology Officer, Merlin Entertainments

Lee Cowie is chief technology officer (CTO), at Merlin Entertainments. He talks about his technology leadership responsibilities while looking at a huge picture of Iron Man. It is a reminder of his company and a visual cue to his feelings about it.

” I get a real buzz working on something relatable,” he said. It’s what motivates me to get out of bed every morning, and that’s why it was the job I chose. It’s the perfect job for me. I’m a big kid at heart. I love what we do. It never feels like work

Cowie is leading a tech-enabled business transformation at Merlin, the world’s second-largest operator of family entertainment destinations. It manages a variety of hotels, resorts and attractions, including Legoland and Sea Life aquariums, Warwick Castle, and Alton Towers. He joined the company from Ericsson in 2017, becoming CTO in January 2020.

” I started my career as an insurance professional years ago, when I was a graduate,” he said. “I believed at the time that insurance is great. Everyone will need it, so I thought this job was safe and wonderful. It’s difficult to relate to selling insurance policies. This job is very relatable .”

Implementing technology change

Cowie reports to Alistair Windybank and is responsible for Merlin’s global technology strategy. He leads a series of technology projects that aim to transform the company.

” I manage all products worldwide,” he said. It includes your corporate IT, ERP [enterprise resource planning], systems, and back-office systems. It also encompasses the more guest-facing systems – our websites, our e-commerce platforms, the booking journey, the systems that take our hotel bookings and the in-park operational systems, whether that’s retail or digital signage.”

Lee Cowie, Merlin: “I get a real buzz from working on something that is relatable. This is what motivates me to get out of bed every morning, and it’s why I accepted the job. It’s the perfect job for me. I’m a big kid at heart. I love what we do. “No day is ever like work for me.”

Some of Cowie’s key achievements include rolling out a global e-commerce project to 128 locations across 25 countries, implementing self-service checkout kiosks at Merlin venues around the world, and ongoing governance and control of a portfolio of more than 90 active international technology projects.

” People ask me about my job and I answer that it involves pretty much anything with a light and a plug.” he said. It’s a wide-ranging job and my team spans the globe. Some of our main attractions have embedded engineers. We’ve got a big presence here in the UK, a big presence in the US, and teams in Europe and Asia-Pacific.”

Taking on new priorities

Cowie recognizes that the role of CTO has been a challenging one, despite all the joy and achievements. When he assumed the role at the start of 2020, he had a “grand vision” for technology-enabled change. The coronavirus pandemic caused priorities to shift dramatically.

“I was made CTO, and the world crashed two months later,” he said. “I don’t think there could have been a more difficult introduction to becoming the CTO in terms of a baptism-of-fire. However, necessity is the mother invention .”

. This is something I believe a lot industries have seen.

“I was CTO, and then two months later the world crashed [due to Covid]..” “I don’t believe you could have received a more harsh introduction to the CTO role as a baptism in fire.
Lee Cowie, Merlin Entertainments

The need to reinvent Merlin was greater than many other businesses. Cowie claims that the company had only one attraction operating at any one time during the pandemic. So, as well as shifting employees to remote working, Cowie and his technology colleagues had to work with the business to think about how they could spin up alternative business models.

” You really need to dig deep to see how technology can help solve this problem. He says that there was a huge, almost instantaneous transition from office-space work to home-based work. Technology had to be able to do this quickly.”

” We were trying to figure out how we can create new revenue streams. We had almost no revenue coming in and were closed. We looked into quickly establishing several dozen online e-commerce shops to sell memorabilia and fan merchandise for our attractions. They were up and running in just a few weeks .”

Improving back-end systems

While all of this innovation was taking place, Cowie’s group also had a number of important technology projects to rollout, including modernising and updating Merlin’s back-end systems. One of these projects included the implementation of a new ERP system based on Oracle NetSuite.

The company added Oracle’s Micros Simphony point of sale system and Opera property management software. Cowie stated that the standardization of Oracle was done to allow Merlin to provide personalized service to customers.

” We want technology to enhance our experience and make people feel special so that the next time they return, we can give them a new perspective of the park. He says that technology is all about personalizing the experience. This gives them another reason to return.

Cowie claims that Oracle won in almost all areas it considered during the procurement exercise. He says that there are many other excellent back-end systems available on the market. However, Oracle met all the requirements (such as price and technical measures) and was a good cultural match.

“It wasn’t the integration part,” he said. When you consider the complexity of Merlin’s business with its restaurants, hotels and retail outlets, without a partner of Oracle .”

, you would spend all your time customizing and integrating systems across a large geographic area. It would be even more difficult if we didn’t partner with Oracle.

Boosting customer experiences

As Merlin enters the post Covid age,

Cowie continues to work on ingenious solutions to complex business problems. His team had to think hard about how technology could help in order to ensure customer safety as the venues and hotels reopened. This is an approach that was based on bringing people together.

” “Obviously, there were some challenges coming out from Covid,” he said. “We considered quickly deploying mechanisms to order food via mobile devices so people wouldn’t have to wait in a line and could be delivered the food .”

.

Cowie and his team had to consider how to make a fair queue system for rides even when no one was there. He says that the answer was a series virtual queueing systems. They also explored how to stagger people through different revenue-generating areas like restaurants and shops.

“Contactless technology was really important. How can we make it easy for guests to interact with us while still keeping them safe? It was a period of rapid innovation. We installed kiosks and online-checking system so people could check in from their phones. It was an era of rapid innovation

Even more remarkable, these technological solutions had be spun up simultaneously with the business adopting new ways to work. The IT team couldn’t be close to each other due to lockdown. Cowie states that social distancing prevented them from having the whiteboard moments that can spark inspiration and engagement. All of the IT team’s innovation was instead being done remotely.

” We successfully navigated this journey and deployed some really great technology,” Cowie says. Cowie says that while some of the technology was already in place, others were just implemented quickly. Many of the things we had to do because of necessity have now been incorporated into the guest experience. They will continue to evolve post Covid into normal operations .”

Feeling the buzz

It’s fascinating that extreme circumstances have led us to new ways to serve customers using digital technology. These are not only possible without the pandemic but also more likely to create better experiences for future generations.

” It gives you time to reflect on what has happened and helps to clarify things. Attractions are for people who want an immersive experience. They want to be in a physical setting. This will always be true. This is what Merlin is all about. Cowie says that we are increasingly seeing that technology, especially digital technology, can improve that experience.

People come to attractions for the immersive experience. They want to be in a physical environment. That’s what Merlin is all about. We are increasingly seeing that technology, especially digital technology, can enhance that experience.
Lee Cowie, Merlin Entertainments

He says that the company will offer additional features such as the ability to gamify the queue. Customers will join queues for rides and Merlin will create a digital experience through its mobile app and augmented reality technology that gives people the opportunity to experience another dimension as they wait.

“And, I think more, as we go forward, the goal is, how do we stitch digital and physical realms together?” says Cowie. How can we engage our guests in a Merlin ecosystem? It is not only about the attraction, but it is also augmented and enhanced with digital experiences and digital stories which persist after the visit ?”

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Cowie ends by reiterating his original idea that the buzz he receives from leading technology at Merlin is from helping his team make improvements in a tangible manner. It’s fun to look around at the company’s attractions, and to see the impact digital and data have on the business and its customers.

” We make it better. I love to just stroll around our attractions and look at the places where we have deployed really cool, really great tech and see how it is impacting people’s lives,” says he.

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Nothing announces official launch date for new Ear (stick) AirPods alternatives

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Nothing announces official launch date for new Ear (stick) AirPods alternatives
Nothing Ear (stick) held by a model on white background



(Image credit: Nothing )

True to form, Nothing has just announced the full reveal date for its upcoming audio product, Ear (stick). 

So, an announcement about an announcement. You’ve got to hand it to Carl Pei’s marketing department, they never miss a trick.

What we’re saying is that although we still have ‘nothing’ conclusive about the features, pricing or release date for the Ear (stick) except an image of another model holding them (and we’ve seen plenty of those traipsing down the catwalk recently), we do have a date – the day when we’ll be granted official access to this information. 

That day is October 26. Nothing assures us that on this day we’ll be able to find out everything, including pricing and product specifications, during the online Ear (stick) Reveal, at 3PM BST (which is 10AM ET, or 1AM on Wednesday if you’re in Sydney, Australia) on nothing.tech (opens in new tab)

Any further information? A little. Nothing calls the Ear (stick), which is now the product’s official name, “the next generation of Nothing sound technology”, and its “most advanced audio product yet”. 

But that’s not all! Apparently, Ear (stick) are “half in-ear true wireless earbuds that balance supreme comfort with exceptional sound, made not to be felt when in use. They’re feather-light with an ergonomic design that’s moulded to your ears. Delivered in a unique charging case, inspired by classic cosmetic silhouettes, and compactly formed to simply glide into pockets.” 

Opinion: I need more than a lipstick-style case

Nothing Ear (stick) – official leaked renders pic.twitter.com/FrhKmRttmiOctober 1, 2022

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It’s no secret that I want Nothing’s earbuds to succeed in world dominated by AirPods; who doesn’t love a plucky, eccentric underdog? 

But in order to become some of the best true wireless earbuds on the market, there is room for improvement over the Nothing Ear 1, the company’s inaugural earbuds. 

Aside from this official ‘news’ from Nothing, leaked images and videos of the Ear (stick) have been springing up all over the internet (thank you, developer Kuba Wojciechowski) and they depict earbuds that look largely unchanged, which is a shame. 

For me, the focus needs to shift from gimmicks such as a cylindrical case with a red section at the end which twists up like a lipstick. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of theater, but only if the sound coming from the earbuds themselves is top dog. 

As the natural companions for the Nothing Phone 1, it makes sense for the Ear (stick) to take a place similar to that of Apple’s AirPods 3, where the flagship Ear (1) sit alongside the AirPods Pro 2 as a flagship offering. 

See, that lipstick case shape likely will not support wireless charging. That and the rumored lack of ANC means the Ear (stick) is probably arriving as the more affordable option in Nothing’s ouevre. 

For now, we sit tight until October 26. 

Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.  

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YouTube could make 4K videos exclusive to Premium subscribers

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YouTube could make 4K videos exclusive to Premium subscribers
Woman watching YouTube on mobile phone screen



(Image credit: Shutterstock / Kicking Studio)

You might soon have to buy YouTube Premium to watch 4K YouTube videos, a new user test suggests.

According to a Reddit thread (opens in new tab) highlighted on Twitter by leaker Alvin (opens in new tab), several non-Premium YouTube users have reported seeing 4K resolution (and higher) video options limited to YouTube Premium subscribers on their iOS devices. For these individuals, videos are currently only available to stream in up to 1440p (QHD) resolution.

The apparent experiment only seems to be affecting a handful of YouTube users for now, but it suggests owner Google is toying with the idea of implementing a site-wide paywall for access to high-quality video in the future.

So, after testing up to 12 ads on YouTube for non-Premium users, now some users reported that they also have to get a Premium account just to watch videos in 4K. pic.twitter.com/jJodoAxeDpOctober 1, 2022

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It’s no secret that Google has been searching for new ways to monetize its YouTube platform in recent months. In September, the company introduced five unskippable ads for some YouTube users as part of a separate test – an unexpected development that, naturally, didn’t go down well with much of the YouTube community. 

A resolution paywall seems a more palatable approach from Google. While annoying, the change isn’t likely to provoke the same level of ire from non-paying YouTube users as excessive ads, given that many smartphones still max out at QHD resolution anyway. 

Of course, if it encourages those who do care about high-resolution viewing to invest in the platform’s Premium subscription package, it may also be more lucrative for Google. After all, YouTube Premium, which offers ad-free viewing, background playback and the ability to download videos for offline use, currently costs $11.99 / £11.99 / AU$14.99 per month.

Suffice to say, the subscription service hasn’t taken off in quite the way Google would’ve hoped since its launch in 2014. Only around 50 million users are currently signed up to YouTube Premium, while something close to 2 billion people actively use YouTube on a monthly basis. 

Might the addition of 4K video into Premium’s perk package bump up that number? Only time will tell. We’ll be keeping an eye on our own YouTube account to see whether this resolution paywall becomes permanent in the coming months.

Axel is a London-based staff writer at TechRadar, reporting on everything from the newest movies to latest Apple developments as part of the site’s daily news output. Having previously written for publications including Esquire and FourFourTwo, Axel is well-versed in the applications of technology beyond the desktop, and his coverage extends from general reporting and analysis to in-depth interviews and opinion. 

Axel studied for a degree in English Literature at the University of Warwick before joining TechRadar in 2020, where he then earned a gold standard NCTJ qualification as part of the company’s inaugural digital training scheme. 

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Europe sets deadline for USB-C charging for (almost) all laptops

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Europe sets deadline for USB-C charging for (almost) all laptops

USB-C als Ladestandard in der EU

Mundissima / Shutterstock


Author: Michael Crider
, Staff Writer

Michael is a former graphic designer who’s been building and tweaking desktop computers for longer than he cares to admit. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.

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