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:

(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:

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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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.

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 and 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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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 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. 


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


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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Toronto / London / Lisbon

Three events in quick succession, all very different but all in their own way reinforcing two key trends – the changing shape of the creative economy, and the increasing political recognition, and support, of its economic impact.

iVentures in Toronto is a relatively small event organized by Interactive Ontario, with a strong emphasis on knowledge sharing and community stimulation. It had previously been GameON but changed its profile to recognise the much wider activity and blurring lines across the sector in the city. A company combining VR, CGI and animation in delivering sophisticated medical applications seemed a good exemplar.

Elsewhere in the city the announcement of the Sidewalk Toronto initiative also embodied some of this change. A spectacular plan to regenerate a large part of the waterfront as a smart city “from the ground up” it seemed significant in their communications, and in my separate conversations with them, that design (in its broadest sense) was as important a part of the process as technology.

Next stop London and the Creative Industries Council Autumn Reception at the Houses of Parliament. A significant turn out of MP’s signaled the interest in the sector. It is possible that the Creative Industries Sector Deal as part of the Industrial Strategy will come as early as the Budget later this month. As I discussed with another attendee, an amazing journey over the past 10 years or so from a sector dismissed as marginal and cultural to the current understanding of economic impact equivalent to aerospace or financial services.

The potential for support for creative cluster development out of London is a key part of the early thinking on the sector deal – it will be interesting to see if the hoped for scale investment is delivered.

And then to Lisbon for Web Summit. The change in the economy of Lisbon over the past five years or so is incredible, and a testament to active political participation. In an economic downturn the Portuguese, and Lisbon authority in particular, sought to create the conditions for young people to in essence create their own jobs by supporting a start up economy – funding accelerators, giving over large empty buildings, pushing international profile.

The attraction of Web Summit from Dublin was another significant commitment, but one that feels wholly appropriate as the city is now a thriving creative / technology hub. The high profile presence of Portuguese goverment ministers (and UK for that matter) pointed to a continuing commitment in an emerging industry which has been a part of the wider economic improvement in the country.

And a final positive public sector intervention. Closer to home the West of England LEP and West of England Combined Authority provided funding to the Bristol VR Lab, a bid I helped to write – a positive catalytic investment to accelerate a VR/AR cluster which is already the second largest in the country after London.

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London: Shadowing

Installed as part of the launch of Culture Mile – Chomko & Rosier’s Shadowing lamps were placed at six locations through Smithfield and Barbican.

Their beautiful video here:

Shadowing London from Chomko & Rosier on Vimeo.

The next stop for Shadowing is Austin as part of a series of Playable City activities in the city.

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Dmexco in Cologne for the first time, a really busy show with a broad German / EU / international audience. Across a series of exhibition halls it gave a very good state of the nation view on the digital marketing industry: essentially data, data and more data… platforms and tools to commoditise, personalise and target efficient communications.

There were some more immersive / experiential products in evidence but in truth many felt a bit “look at my innovation” rather than genuine forward steps.

And – Brexit.

Literally every conversation had a Brexit section, with a tone mainly of confusion, uncertainty and incredulity. All were aware that the detailed questions they want answered are at present unanswerable, and as a result the UK, despite having a digital advertising market more than double the German (#2 in EU), looks a less compelling proposition for expansion until there is some clarity.

Unfortunately it is not just the commercial uncertainty, echoed in a conversation with a major London VFX firm is the cultural damage – harder to quantify, the more emotional impacts of an apparently less open nation will be much longer lasting. And were entirely avoidable.

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