If you asked me to define myself, I guess I’d say that I’m an ageing Cyber Punk who lives and breathes technology. I was in a post-punk band in the early ’80’s, and used to tinker with electronics to make music (or what we called music back then). I came up with a digital sound sampler while at school and decided to approach Simmons Electronics – the iconic electronic drum company. To cut a long story short, they ended up taking me on as a design engineer at the tender age of 17, and my sampler was launched in 1984 as the SDS-EPB. It was actually the world’s first sound sampler for drums!
After working in the electronic music industry for a few years I setup Apache in 1991 with a colleague from Simmons, and it’s been a wild ride for the last 30 years or so.
Cutting-edge tech has always been my passion, and this is no different now to when I was a teenager… although my spikey Mohican is now long gone. At weekends I like to mix it up a bit, as I get to indulge in my other passion which is classic American Cars. There’s nothing I like more than being up to my armpits in sump oil, tinkering with my 1965 Mustang. I consider myself to be a very lucky guy!
How did you guys get into XR?
– As a long-running tech company we have seen some incredible changes in technology over the last 30 years. We have witnessed the birth of the Internet, experienced the growth of mobile communications, and been part of the immersive technology revolution.
Looking back, we’ve always managed to pivot and change focus at certain points where we have identified key changes in adoption. Our move into AR initially came about around 12 years ago, when we were operating primarily with web-based technologies. We saw an early example of an AR App that used a fiducial marker – the blocky black and white markers that pre-dated true image recognition. It was nothing special by today’s standards – just a floating model really. But it had that “wow factor” that AR has always been able to deliver, and this inspired us to change tack and learn what we could about this magical new technology.
We got a lucky break by being engaged to create an AR app to promote the Driver San Francisco console game by an agency working with Ubisoft. It enabled the user to drive a virtual muscle car around on the floor, doing jumps and burnouts – the perfect subject matter for me too as a petrol-head!
Spinning on a few years, the pivotal moment for us that shaped our core business was when we received a call out of the blue from Disney. We had created a Magic Mirror system for the Trafford Centre to enable shoppers to virtually try on dresses, and evidently someone at Disney had seen it in action. They called us to ask if we could adapt the tech to enable users to suit-up as Iron Man, and after a few milliseconds thought we of course said yes!
The Become Iron Man project kick-started our relationship with Disney/Marvel and attracted the attention of the other Hollywood studios, and we’ve been known for creating movie-based suit-up experiences ever since. Some of our experiences are running as permanent attractions in theme parks in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which makes me very proud indeed.
What is it like working with you guys?
– I’m sure you have heard of Clarke’s First Law, which states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This has always been a core tenet of ours, as we like to think that what we create is akin to magic. It elicits the same responses of joy and wonderment.
But it can also be hard for clients to know which of their ideas are translatable into achievable magic and which cross the border into the realms of pure fantasy. So, a big part of our work with clients is in showing them what this amazing technology can do, but just as importantly helping them to understand its limitations.
This means not being afraid to say no. There is nothing worse than seeing an AR/VR experience falling flat on its face as the developers have not understood the practicalities, or have been forced down a certain path by the client. So we do our best to avoid this.
We also recognise that each client is different, with varying degrees of technical understanding and overall confidence with the technology, so we do our best to try to look at each project in terms of what it is the client is ultimately trying to achieve, then we recommend the relevant technology based on this. The tech, as wonderful as it is, should never lead the project, which is why it’s hard to define what we do in terms of AR, VR, MR, XR etc. Instead we’ll use whatever is most appropriate for the task at hand.
How would you describe your company culture?
– We are an extremely tightly-knit tribe of technical visionaries, artists and developers, who all consider each other as good friends. I have avoided the temptation to grow our numbers too quickly, as our company culture means everything to us, and I don’t want to risk diluting it. Someone told me it was like making a fine soup – add ingredients slowly and with care and you’ll end up enhancing the flavour without losing the essence. That’s what we try to do anyway. I guess it works as we have a very low staff turnover rate. I have a couple of people that have been with me for 10-20 years.
I’m really proud of what the team has managed to achieve with each of our projects. People always talk about being passionate, but it takes true passion to pour your heart and soul into every project as we do, and I am hopeful that the results speak to this.
What is your company’s core expertise?
– I feel we have a deep understanding of the technology, combined with a high level of attention to detail in the execution, which results in a consistently high quality across our projects.
Like a lot of companies, we work with a range of hardware from AR Apps to Mixed Reality Headsets. But an area that we have a lot of experience with, and I think it’s fair to say that we have pioneered over the last few years is Body Tracking – specifically the concept of the AR Suit-up.
As much as we love VR, we find that Body Tracking experiences tend to work better for the public as they don’t require putting on a headset – you literally just walk up to the screen and off you go. They are also very intuitive and work well across all age ranges.
We have been incredibly privileged to be trusted to adapt several Hollywood movie IPs into AR and VR experiences. It’s a big responsibility, and one that we take very seriously. So, I suppose another of our strengths is our ability to understand the nuances of the characters and storylines and translate these into this new medium.
Can you explain to me why I should invest in a VR or AR marketing campaign?
– AR and VR are not new technologies, but they have matured tremendously over the last decade. Anyone that might have tried AR/VR a few years ago would almost certainly be blown away by the capabilities of today’s hardware.
AR in particular has been accused of being gimmicky, and early examples may well have been guilty of this as brands have had to figure out the best way to use it. But used well, AR and VR can be incredibly powerful tools. The ubiquity of Smartphones means your audience is vast and truly global, and tech such as Web AR is opening this up even further.
With VR, its highly immersive nature can really intensify the senses, and studies have shown increased feelings of empathy and improved data retention when presented with information in VR compared with more traditional methods. This is perfect for training of course, but also in entertainment-based experiences as it provides the user with a far greater connection to the characters, enabling them to become their hero for a brief moment in time.
What is your best tip for a brand looking to launch its first XR experience?
– It is most important to find the right partner that is capable of delivering your vision, and one that you can rely on to provide the best advice. This site has a large directory of VR/AR studios and is a great place to start.
Look at the kind of projects the studio has created, but also talk to them, see how they work, and really get to know them. Don’t be fooled by slick marketing videos or self-promotional tweets. Try their work first-hand and see if it hits the mark.
Also, think what you are hoping to achieve. Perhaps AR or VR isn’t the best way forward after all! This might seem counter-intuitive, and AR/VR can certainly offer some amazing things, but think if you’d just be using these technologies for the sake of it and ask yourself if they really add value to your campaign. A good studio will be able to provide the guidance that you need.
What are the risks and pitfalls with XR marketing? Describe what you would advise against doing.
– Push boundaries, yes – always. But don’t over-promise and under-deliver. A simple idea that is well-executed, with a high level of attention to detail will always win over something that tries too hard but fails to hit the mark.
One of the keys to this is gaining an intimate understanding of the capabilities of a given device or technology as well as understanding it’s limitations, as this will enable you to utilise hardware that is most appropriate for the task at hand.
It rarely works well when a client starts by saying we want to use a specific bit of kit. Much better to ask what is the end goal – what is it exactly they are hoping to achieve? Then work out which of the available technologies will enable them to best satisfy their needs.
How would you define a successful VR or AR marketing experience?
– Success can be measured in a number of different ways. For us as developers it’s the users’ reactions to our experiences that gives us the most joy. For the client it may be something more tangible such as the number of users that have interacted with their brand or the media coverage / awards that they receive.
Overall, the most successful campaigns are those that stand the test of time – experiences that people keep talking about for many years. We’ve been fortunate to achieve this with a number of our projects, but especially so with the Iron Man experiences, which have been rolled out globally and continue to run today – several years on.
What is it about XR that gets you excited?
– For me it’s what I call those “moments of joy” in a good VR experience, where you discover something wonderful, whether it’s as simple as an object responding correctly to your touch or to physics as it would in real life, or the sheer joy of being able to do something that you couldn’t do in the real world, like flying round a city or being transported to an alien world.
I love the power of VR to bring out the inner child in us, and it’s always pleasing to see this transformation in others, especially those that haven’t previously experienced it first-hand. I’ve demonstrated several VR experiences to grey-suited business men and women, who start of stone-faced and sceptical and end up highly animated and excited like a little kid once they take the headset off.
What really excites me is the thought of what the technology will be capable of in 10 years’ time. I don’t think we’re too far off seeing and experiencing VR that is indistinguishable from reality. And at this point it becomes its own reality – a digital layer on the world.
The Matrix, OASIS or Metaverse (take your pick) is already beginning to form, and when it does it has the power to fundamentally change how we operate as humans. Of course, there are a number of dangers associated with this too, but I have faith in humanity as a whole, as we’re a remarkably resilient bunch that is always adapting to change.
What XR experience do you fantasize about experiencing in your lifetime?
– Surprisingly the answer for me isn’t to experience some wild fantasy involving Super-heroes and space battles… although actually this does sound quite interesting.
What I’d really like to see is AR or VR reaching the kind of mass adoption that we’ve seen with Smartphones or the Internet. Something that is seamless to use, and ubiquitous, with everyone having access to at least a basic form of whatever this might entail.
AR glasses could be a good example of this. There seems to be a flurry of development going on right now, with hopefully viable solutions being on the horizon. If we can get to the point where people carry around a lightweight pair of specs, just like we do with mobile phones today, this will provide instant, on-demand access to this digital layer on the world – in fact to multiple overlapping digital layers, allowing context-sensitive data that can be tailored to each person’s preferences and interests.
The futurist in me hopes that we will reach this nirvana within my lifetime (hopefully I’m good for another 30 or so years), but my more pragmatic side tells me that we still have a long way to go until AR glasses are as popular as iPhones… we’ll see I guess, and in the meantime I will continue to enjoy the ride!