New term

An interesting recent article by Janan Ganesh in the FT on the impact of tourism “ossifying” medium sized cities resonated with a trip to Portugal over the summer. His contention that tourism hampers change because the visitor wants the “old town” to stay the same not grow a new tech sector, was reflected in Porto and Lisbon where there is local opposition to the airbnb-ification of property in the city centre as displacing real activity.

However if you’ve read any of my other blogs on Lisbon you’ll know that the regeneration of the city economy has been remarkable, and revisiting a busy and sparkling Porto the Uber driver claim that they were being priced out of the city was undermined by my experience in 2012 when the city centre was empty, desolate and rundown.

Visits in 2012 were en route to Guimaraes to produce part of the European Capital of Culture programme (Open City). Travelling back there I was delighted, and slightly surprised, to find a symbol of culture as a force for economic growth, with the city tangibly more prosperous and vibrant.

New term, new travel plans (Vasco de Gama above…):

  • Lisbon again shortly
  • Sao Paulo / Santiago / Buenos Aires in October
  • Berlin and maybe one more in November
  • New Delhi and Mumbai in December

Closer to home the pitch process continues for Bristol to become one of Channel 4’s Creative Hubs – decision in the next few weeks…

I’m taking a very quick crash course in Chilean cinema ahead of chairing a panel at Raindance Film Festival.

And finally, picking up previous blogs on the impact of Reliance Jio on the Indian mobile data market I’ll be chairing a panel with them to explore the Indian opportunity in London on Sept 17th

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Overdue – Hyderabad / Bangalore / Mumbai / Berlin / Helsinki / Bristol

A slightly over-intense period, with the result that this site fell off the to-do list…

The highlights:

India for Innovate UK, focusing on the potential for productive UK / Indian collaboration on the development of the immersive technology sector. I’m authoring a report and making strategy recommendations (to be published later) but there is a tangible sense of an opportunity, although the shape of the emerging industry is very different. And as noted before here the consumer technology landscape is changing at speed – Jio switched on 100M 4G mobile customers in 170 days last year, with a forecast of 500M 4G smart phones by 2020 – and 4G data is currently free…

Berlin and Helsinki for DIT, presenting at events again focused on immersive tech. As is common across all countries there is a slight frustration that the market is not moving as fast to commercial revenue as they’d like – but a byproduct is a sense of active collaborative, an open community seeking to share knowledge in order to move everyone forward. The recently launched Helsinki Games Factory, in an old hospital building (white tiles and industrial lifts), has these values built into its ethos in establishing a new focal point for the Finnish Games market (already a global phenomenon).

And back in Bristol two successes on bids:

The city was shortlisted for the location of the new Channel 4 National HQ. Over the past year I’ve been working on Bristol’s representation into this process and authored the various submissions. C4’s considerations now move into a second phase with the final decision in the Autumn.

And a consortium of Bristol and Bath Universities, plus Surrey, came together to propose a programme for £5M funding as the national Industry Centre for Excellence in Immersive Narrative (I co-authored this one). Interview done, now we wait.

The gif above is at the Bangalore vs Mumbai IPL game. Cricket is a religion in India – India represents 85% of the global cricket economy – and the game and its stars are often the drivers of innovation and engagement. Meetings at Star TV around their work with 360 broadcast exemplified access on new platforms as a catalyst for new audiences.

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Paris / Bristol

An event in Paris at the spectacular British Embassy exploring the relationship between “tech nations”. Combining inputs from companies and intermediaries from across the UK and France, it was an object lesson in the fact that collaboration is driven by ideas and complementary strengths or vision rather than geography.

And echoing the post below re: SxSW, the installation of some fabulous modern art (such as the Cornelia Parker above) in a classical building reinforced a particular kind of British creative unorthodoxy.

Then to OIConf in Bristol, a conference exploring the role of influencer marketing in digital advertising. A conversation at the partner dinner the night before covered the usual ground of relevance and authenticity, but there was also an interesting acknowledgement that we are approaching an inflection point in the maturing of social media as a series of negative news stories make people (finally) wake up to the data driven underpinning. The tyranny of unlimited choice in a digital environment is also a line of thought worth following…

But for authenticity nothing beat Miles Chambers, who catered the Jamaican food for the night and then performed his “Bristol, Bristol” poem, written during his stint as poet in residence for Bristol City Council. It left people open mouthed….

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Austin: SxSW

Overall the expected slightly frenzied mix of showcase, panels and parties.

Reflecting against my last visit four years ago, reality has rather overtaken the naïve enthusiasm of the early years of SxSW Interactive. There were no start-ups in branded T shirts thinking they were going to break at SxSW as Twitter and Foursquare had done in the past. And there were a lot of underwhelming corporate innovation showcases which had a sense of marketing budget over substance.

Across the show there were plenty of British accents and Sadiq Khan really made an impression with his very clear and well delivered messages. Country presences which stood out tended to be via installations outside the conference hall, and also tended to be a result of playing up idiosyncratic differences. Activity by Germany, Japan (with Panasonic) and UK at the British Music Embassy all said more about creativity in the country than a catch all platform of interchangeable tech jargon (blockchain, AI, machine learning etc etc).

Unfortunately I left Austin just prior to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, a VR installation in partnership between the Philharmonia, Mixed Immersion and Igloo Vision. The idea was conceived whilst sitting together in traffic on a freeway in Silicon Valley in December – see my blog 4 posts down….

I was interviewed by Igloo Vision on the project, given my part responsibility for the fact that they were on the bus together in the first place: http://www.igloovision.com/blog/Interview-with-mark-leaver

(And concurrently to SxSW the Playable City Austin project had Shadowing installed in 6 locations across East Austin and South Congress – see Fox’s coverage: http://www.fox7austin.com/good-day/shadowing-in-austin)

One of the joys of SxSW is seeing some live music – the picture above is Francobollo at the British Music Embassy, wild and noisy in a good way.

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Munich

Another fascinating exploration of attitudes and activity around VR. The consensus across countries as diverse as India and Germany on the market position and necessity for experimentation is striking, and there is a consistent open and collaborative ethos everywhere in seeking a mutually beneficial commercial future.

In comparing production exemplars between UK and Germany across games, film IP (coming soon, Das Boot) and enterprise, the key difference which emerged was actually the strategically focused nature of UK Government support for innovation in this emerging sector – as channeled via Innovate UK and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

Our event hosts, Remote Control Productions, have developed a very interesting business model: supporting very small games companies to develop IP and grow in a role part accelerator, part investor, part community manager, part service supplier. Clearly it’s working well as after 11 years they have 100 people in their “family” in Munich and have expanded to Helsinki.

I made it out to Munich ahead of the major UK snow to a much colder, snowy city where life carried on as normal – including surfing on a city river….

Flight cancellations meant an unplanned extra day in Germany and the experience of some of the worst corporate communication I’ve ever encountered – I’m forgiving of cancellations due to snow, but BMI’s inability to text / email even the most basic of updates was pathetic.

As I was stuck went to see some amazing Cy Twombly’s at the Brandhorst.

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Mumbai / Bangalore / Hyderabad

A mission across three Indian cities exploring the collaboration potential between India and the UK, with a specific focus on VFX and immersive technologies.

the room next door
The Head of Technicolor India uses the phrase “the room next door to Soho” when describing his 3500 person facility in Bangalore. This site acts as a back end for The Mill and MPC servicing VFX, commercials and VR projects. During the same trip Framestore signed a deal with Anibrain from Pune, and obviously DNeg is owned by Indian post group Prime Focus, reinforcing an impression that the Soho / India link is very well established and thriving. From my perspective the quality of work is way ahead of what I saw on my first visits here a few years back, and as a result the services provided are much further up the supply chain, including creative development, to the cheap and nasty outsourcing of old.

immersive
Within immersive technologies Indian businesses are at a similar position in terms of experimentation as other markets. A tangible difference is that the innovation lead tends to be technical expertise rather than creative content development. This tech excellence is common across both larger corporations and early stage start-ups.

There is a belief that exponential mobile data growth will drive the lower end of the consumer market first, with some LBE experiences linked to Bollywood and a tangible interest in enterprise applications.

public support
Bangalore and Hyderabad both displayed significant local Government interventions in support of a growing creative economy, with a very specific focus on the technical end of that spectrum.

For example:
Govt of Karnakata (Bangalore) is funding a “centre of excellence” to provide shared resources, skills training and a focal location

Govt of Telangana (Hyderabad) has made multiple investments (mainly land and taxation levers) including support for the expanding T-Hub Accelerator plus other mixed creative developments at scale.

Whilst the UK Government is funding significant support for this sector, the scale of Indian interventions to accelerate economic growth is very impressive.

 

Overall, whilst this is still a country with many challenges, the sense of hurry up towards a reinvented (technology focused) economic future is tangible. And the consistently high quality of people and skills combined with a proactive international partnership approach is driving the cities forward very quickly.

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Lisbon

An overnight trip to Lisbon, as part of a series of joint events between the British Embassy and Second Home Lisbon – the Portuguese outpost of the Brick Lane tech accelerator. The venue itself is emblematic of the changes in landscape in Lisbon, an oasis of calm concentration, with a lots of plants and young people with macbooks, on the first floor of a refurbished old building, with a newly swish local food market below.

Other meetings during the day reinforced the theme – all focused young businesses looking internationally even at an early stage of growth.

Speaker Sol Rogers from Rewind led a standing room only audience through the current realities of Virtual Reality, and then off into his vision of an immersive future. Some pointed Q&A on ethics and privacy acted as an interesting prompt that we are in a phase where the technically possible is not always desirable…

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San Francisco

A second early December trip to San Francisco for some meetings in the Valley and the VRX conference.

Similarly to last year there is a medium term confidence that VR / AR will become a massive market but nervousness in the short term as, despite the fact that all of the main tech players are in the market, the fundamentals are still not quite right to ensure growth. To quote one speaker the “content / platform / hardware intersection is not yet aligned”, so it remains an emerging medium with no clear successful business model identified.

The interesting part about this trajectory is that it has allowed for experimentation, generating some very diverse and creative approaches. There is an increasing understanding that the methodologies of other creative disciplines have something to add, last year theatre was often cited, this year magicians and misdirection came up more than once.

So there are green shoots (including Sony reporting 2M PSVR sales), but no-one was putting a timeline on it as before.

Things that were different from 2016:

A new term is LBE for “location based experiences”.
The successful social elements of console gaming have been adopted into public VR experiences, whether arcade, IMAX or theme park. This has two benefits: firstly, acting as an entry point to VR for those who have not experienced it, helping to habituate the tech and seed an aspiration for home use; and secondly, ensuring that a first VR experience is high quality and transformative, there has been a perception that the negative of a poor early exposure to VR is harming demand.

The increased potential of AR.
The release of ARKit and ARCore software platforms has enabled simple development of AR across a massively expanded “install” base of IOS and Android models (NB: plus Facebook Camera Effects). This clearly opens up a scale opportunity for different types of storytelling or information overlay applications.

The promise of new headsets.
The clear barrier to entry of requiring $1k of PC kit and peripherals, all attached by big wires, is a hurdle which will exclude all but the most committed. But the imminent release of new untethered headsets at a lower pricepoint, e.g Oculus Go, could be an important turning point. Obviously we are at the “massive mobile phone” stage of the technology, so any advancements will help drive wider adoption.

And whilst VR / AR / MR are often lumped together as immersive tech there were some interesting distinctions appearing, seemingly obvious when stated but worth noting. For example, within the brand panel it was clear that VR installations were about values and empathy, where AR treatments were much more call to action. Or on a TV panel where there was a clear distinction made that 360 is not a “gateway drug” to VR, but a very different medium.

Weirdly I got quite excited by probably the most tech-y thing I saw, a cloud based compression system delivering an improved quality VR experience over a 5G enabled network.

Final impressions from meetings across SF / Silicon Valley:

  • the new openness of Magic Leap
  • the lesson of Madefire, you don’t always have to be bleeding edge to create a great experience (and great authoring tool)
  • the classiness of Apple
  • the culture of generosity of both time and insight at ILM
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Helsinki

Helsinki provided proper Slush weather this year –dark, cold sleet / snow.

Inside the venue was again a trade show with a really different feel, and whilst slightly less manic than in previous years (although still more nightclub than conference venue) it displayed a couple of things which for me separate it from other tech / start up gatherings.

At a side event one of the panelists spoke the “start-up jargon bingo” drivel, all buzz words and no substance (data was his growthhacking secret sauce etc). This was in marked contrast to the main conference which managed to completely avoid these clichés – in fact I didn’t see one “disrupt” across the two days.

And, clearly related, there was a seriousness of purpose to the vast majority of the early stage businesses, with a lot of education and healthcare related initiatives (plus a second wave of 3D printing).

In typical Finnish style there was also the beautifully designed but odd: speakers embedded in large tree trunks which you pressed your ear against (or hugged) to hear the recorded birdsong.

Normally there is one company which really stands out for me – and the vision of the Varjo VR product was this years.

And in a short gap one afternoon a fabulous diversion. In the centre of the picture above you can see a swimming pool in Helsinki harbour. From the sauna you run through the freezing air into a steaming outdoor pool and swim surrounded by the city in the dark.

The next day however was not swimming weather…

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VR Conversations – Content

Immersive technologies, while still in their experimental stage, are an emerging platform signalling serious future potential. The global market for VR / AR is projected to increase exponentially over the coming years from $4Bn in 2016 to $108bn by 2021 (Digi-Capital). According to McKinsey / WEF “Immersive technologies, namely virtual and augmented reality, will fundamentally alter how we interact with content”, representing the “cusp of a major revolution from mobile to immersive computing.”

Recent PWC mapping identified Bristol as the second largest VR hub outside of London, combining its world-class media industry, growing tech sector and ability to network innovation around culture and the arts, to address the new opportunities and affordances of immersive technologies.

Ahead of the upcoming opening of the new Bristol VR Lab I brought together three internationally renowned, Bristol based VR producers for a conversation on their view of the potential for immersive technology and their first hand experiences of creating content within an emerging industry.

Catherine Allen is a VR Producer and Curator and Founder of Limina Immersive. She is on the BAFTA VR advisory committee, won awards for Easter Rising with the BBC and is currently working on the Women in VR Manifesto, setting out the potential for an inclusive, diverse working environment and content output within this emerging medium.

Dan Efergan is Digital Group Creative Director at Oscar winners Aardman Animations. Their best known VR piece is ‘We Wait”, a dramatised story based on BBC News interviews with migrants, transporting you to the heart of the refugee crisis – recognised with awards from Broadcast, Unity and Kinsale and screened at the UN in Geneva.

John Durrant is Creative Director of BDH, multi-award winning digital agency and production house (BAFTA, EMMY, RTS, Grammy). Their latest VR experience, Wonderful You, commissioned by Oculus, plunges you into the expanding sensory world of your unborn self, a virtual journey through the strange world inside the womb and of your developing senses; sight, sound, touch, taste & smell. 

Conversation

Q: What brought you to working in VR / AR?

Jon Durrant (JD): BDH is multi-award winning digital agency and production house, we are at the crossroads of creative content for film, television and all things pervasive. This sort of fusion of creative disciplines, visual effects, film direction and virtual reality has opened our eyes to a new range of exciting possibilities. It is blurring the boundaries between disciplines.

Dan Efergan (DE): It’s finally a platform which truly uses all parts of our company.  Productions bring together Directors, Writers, CG, Game Designers, Coders etc… and they’re all bound by their general geekery for new forms of storytelling… so VR/AR is a no-brainer for us.

Catherine Allen (CA): Before working in VR, I was a producer at a high-end educational app publisher. My degree and interests had always been theatre & the arts, so I felt that VR brought them together beautifully.

Q: What specifically excites you about the future potential of immersive content?

CA: VR’s future as an artistic medium really excites me, [the concept I describe as] storydoing rather than storytelling .

DE: [Completely agree]… something that was unexpected is how intimate VR is as a platform, how close you feel to the events and ‘people’ around you.  This makes it a powerful story telling tool, but a very different one.

On a geeky side [reduced render times will] allow developers to have a greater understanding of viewers emotional states.  This’ll allow some pretty powerful stuff when viewers and virtual actors are bouncing off each other.

And that’s just the VR.  Although we’ve not done much AR, it’s AR that’s actually going to change the world.

JD: We are particularly intrigued by the fact that there are no age barriers to the new Immersive technology. Both our public installations, Magritte VR and Bosch VR have had installation have been popular with ages 9 to 90.

Q: Is there a Bristol effect? 

JD: The historically high calibre of producers, directors and animators from Bristol has been a strong creative influence on the quality of ideas in the city.

CA: It is about the combination between creativity and technology. The rebellious, experimental spirit that Bristol has is exactly what VR needs right now.

DE: We’re definitely rocking it right now.  At a recent London BBC VR pitch 3 out of 4 companies were from Bristol, not bad.

We’ve got a strong community, strong media scene, great story tellers and VRWC is pulling people out of their offices to see each other.

Q: We are at an early stage of content development in VR / AR – is there a specific discovery that you’ve made during production which feels unique to this medium?

DE: We Wait was about using eye contact and body positioning to transfer emotions.  It was also used in a UCL study on how embodiment and presence affected engagement.  We’re continuing that development in our latest piece.

CA: You can feel you are getting to know people in VR. You can build bonds, you can feel close – even intimate. These people may or may not be real, but it doesn’t really matter. If a character looks you in the eyes in a 360 video, for instance, and smiles, it is likely you will smile back.

We remember VR experiences as something we DID, rather than as something we saw, or were told. And because we bring our sense of self – all the bias’s, hopes, dreams and mood to every VR experience we do, then even the most simple VR experience is a co-creation between the audience member and the VR creator.

JD: Initially we were concerned that we would be isolating our audiences with VR experiences. Now, a few years on, we have audiences of 50 holding hands in a giant bowler hat, celebrating the genius of Rene Magritte together and loving the experience.

With Wonderful You VR we have families experiencing together in the living room, interacting and pointing excitedly at virtual worlds inside the womb

BVRL

Bristol VR Lab (BVRL) will be a landmark new facility creating a development hub for VR and AR skills and content – establishing a new innovation cluster around emerging immersive technologies.

BVRL will be managed by Watershed as a sister space to the Pervasive Media Studio. The founding partners are Opposable Group, University of the West of England, University of Bristol, We The Curious and the BBC.

BVRL will open shortly.

(btw if you’d like to use any of this article somewhere else, just ask)

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