There’s a revolution underway. Deep within the Auckland Viaduct lurks the beginnings of our own tiny Silicon Valley. At GridAKL, more than 50 startups, in industries as diverse as medicine, robotics and augmented reality, are running the entrepreneurial gauntlet looking to build a high-growth business – or at least a get a second funding round.
In On the Grid, a sponsored series with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), we tell their stories. In this, the fifth instalment, digital design firm One Fat Sheep.
Almost surreptitiously, cellphones are in the midst transitioning from a screen in which we view snapshots of the world to a lens through which we can see an enhanced version of its entirety. Nobody understands this better than One Fat Sheep.
A digital marketing agency with roots in traditional web development, OFS have turned pizza boxes into gaming arenas and trans-Pacific flights into mere formalities with their innovative take on an augmented and virtual reality experiences.
After visiting Singapore in VR and shooting down a horde of the undead on a pizza box, I spoke to New Zealand Managing Director Sebastian ‘Bazz’ Deans in the GridAKL Tech Cafe.
The Spinoff: So, One Fat Sheep, 2009 was the initial kickoff right?
Sebastian Deans: Yeah that was sort of early days.
Those were early days for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) as well – either could easily have turned out to be a gimmick.
Certainly, but I guess for us our ethos has always been to push the boundaries and that might be a bit cliché sometimes but for us it was about technical boundaries.
To explain it further, we spent a lot of time in that space; AR came on our radar first and VR didn’t come onto our radar until later. Augmented reality for us has far more scope and that helped us to understand that it had longevity. AR for instance can help make complex systems appear simple, and it’s that simplicity that helped us understand it was going to be around for a long time.
VR came for us around 2014. By then it had had a bit of time for validation and we started to find user cases for it. We looked at areas such as training, which we’ve come to understand has got long term possibility, and gaming – obviously you can see gaming from a mile away, that’s the whole point of it – and then even around tourism. For us tourism is a massive focus. We’re not necessarily thinking long-term about VR, we’re thinking is this an opportunity for the next three or four years?
It almost feels like VR has been in the collective consciousness long enough in gaming that it’s old news basically. But that tourism example – I’ve never seen anything like that before. Where did you get the inspiration to go into that space instead of going down the gaming route?
That came from two different routes I guess. We started building websites in the tourism space so there’s that natural progression. We started to understand the sector, we started to understand our clients better and we started to understand that 360 video was coming too. We saw 360 video quite early on which is great. We were fortunate in some ways. Then we started to understand how taking that 360 experience and expanding on it is so important for us.
Shooting 360 video is great, but it doesn’t have longevity for us because soon it will become ubiquitous. Every man and his dog will create 360, everyone will be in [on it in] the next two or three years. So what we have to do is add value. For us it was about going ‘What can we build into that experience that allows a bit more room to move from a client’s perspective?’ and then they can manage it themselves as well.
When you’re moving into a space with emergent technology, and you’re looking at where to go next, where do you draw your inspiration from? There’s nothing to base it off aside from maybe science fiction.
Good point. I guess it’s often internal first. We’re chucking around technologies and coming up with ways that we could apply them, and of course we apply agile methodology after that. We test with our family and friends at first, some of them under a non-disclosure agreement, hilariously enough, which can be a little awkward. It’s a little bit funny, ‘Sorry my love, can you just sign this NDA?’
But it’s with those core clients who we really have close relationships with that you start to understand the value a bit more. We put it to them with a few options for a few different concepts, often for free. The notion for us is about testing, trialing, delivering, testing, trialing, delivering. I guess the way we start to understand iteration of technology is that if it’s not out there, build something very minimal. MVP as we call it – minimal viable product – proof of concept, or just a dabble, don’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing it, then give them a sample and test it.
How does that work on a practical level? Are you literally sitting around brainstorming, thinking ‘Hey, this would be fun’?
Sometimes, absolutely. We’ll definitely take inspiration from around the world. Obviously there are people out there in the US and so on doing amazing things, so sometimes we’ll take inspiration from them and figure out how to do it possibly better, or just replicate it because it’s a great model, but yeah, sometimes we literally just sit around in a circle or on Skype. We’ll sit down, talk about current technology and talk about the challenges we’re facing. Of course, we’re also continuously out talking to clients. From there we start to understand what the challenges are, and then we see the technology and think ‘Well, why wouldn’t you use that technology for training, for instance?’ That is massive. Or, AR from some point of view of overlaying a game mechanic on top of a real-world product, exactly like Hell Pizza. We recognise those tie-ins.
So you think that AR is where the real market is going to be? Is that down to the proliferation of mobile phones over headsets?
I feel it’s the space to move into because of that notion of scope, the broadness of scope of AR. You’ve got so many more opportunities, so you can go from one end of the spectrum, engagement, so Hell Pizza for example was phenomenal as far as engaging customers, brand awareness, even sales at that point. Then you go to the far other end of the spectrum, which is the function or utility-based AR. That’s where I’m talking about complex mechanical systems, overlaying information on them to make that user’s life easier day-to-day. [For example] it could be a manufacturing plant, [where] there’s an amazing opportunity in that you’re not disconnecting them from the real world. AR is obviously about overlaying information, so you’re not taking people out of the world and therefore they’ll use it often and therefore it’s more ubiquitous. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better, I just think there are more opportunities.
How do you impress upon your clients the potential of these products?
We often do demos. For us it’s all about being out there and demoing it with them. Talking them through it. Showing them similar examples – often we’re doing new things so it’s not always easy to show them exactly how it works, but that’s why we build agile. So, we don’t pitch a $250,000 build straight off the bat often, because we’ll say to our clients ‘dabble, test, and then understand if it’s effective’.
I honestly believe completely in that, a process that doesn’t allocate huge budgets, it doesn’t take a huge amount of time, and they can then understand the efficacy of it. Then you can iterate it from a number of angles. You might have got it slightly wrong for their purposes. That AR solution that you thought was solving the challenge they have, it might actually solve a completely different challenge for them. That’s why we’re focusing on that approach.
So essentially making sure that we sit down and workshop and actually understand, help our clients to understand, the full spectrum of AR, VR and 360, and then start building with them in sprints. Going back to that agile methodology again, always making sure the client is a part of that development process, and then testing internally with us. It’s not taking away and silo-ing the build, it’s actually making sure they’re a part of it the whole way through.
Do they ever come at your with angles and solutions you may not have arrived at on your own?
Definitely, 100 per cent. The key question that we ask, the first question, is what is the key challenge they’re facing? They might throw five at you. You create a concept or two around those five challenges, and then through the process there will always be a sixth or seventh challenge you never thought about. We had a client, we were actually there from a marketing perspective, looking at a branding exercise, and we ended up building a manufacturing project. It happens all the time, and that’s the great thing about where we are. Because we’re educating continuously, and we’ll sometimes educate the client after the workshop, then two weeks down the track we’ll have a new solution.
Solving technical problems isn’t something I’d considered when thinking about AR. There’s a Vimeo short that has a dystopian AR theme, it’s terrifying, alerts everywhere, special offers, this and that, it’s overwhelming. That seemed to me to be the future of AR extrapolated out. But in terms of technical advantages, what share of your projects are solving technical issues rather than just enhancing marketing?
A lot more than we ever expected initially. Probably somewhere around a third or a quarter at the moment. And it’s growing. Of course we’re starting to build the appropriate templates as well. Part of the process for us is deciding whether something should be a custom build or if a template build is more appropriate. We understand that if certain vertical furniture has more of a case for having something the client can own, manage the content and crank out the application and iterate it all the time, we move it over to our sister company Platter. For us it’s about understanding what to do with it from that point onwards.
I’m finding it hard to stay on subject or even really listen to you properly, because my head is filled with so many ‘what if’s’ with this tech. How do you stop yourself from putting energy in the wrong places?
That’s the most salient question I’ve had all year. It’s a massive challenge, and I’ve really focused in the last two months on making sure that we’re validating verticals and thinking about them really carefully. Say tourism for instance, or education, or any of those verticals. Helping to understand those, and validating them as well, you can get caught up so easy thinking something is an amazing idea, but you have to make sure that you continually benchmark, understand if something is the right decision, and validating that with your user base – your clients in this case. That’s really important for us, for me especially. Because as you say, you get so excited by all this technology, and I can chase leads left, right and centre but it won’t help me or the business, so basically that’s my key. It’s focus.
The glory of the technology that we work in though is that you can chase things for a while. In some cases you’ll just go on your heart. Occasionally that will happen. But it’s about making sure we always tie it back to those core goals, and also check it with our team. I can get excited by something then I go to my CTO or Head of Projects and say ‘Is that even possible?’ and they’ll say ‘Don’t even think about it for the next two years.’ So there’s always someone there to bring you back down if need be.
How does the proliferation of certain hardware effect what you’re doing, and how far in advance can you plan?
It’s a big challenge but we’re finding ways to be ubiquitous across as many bits of hardware as possible. So Magic Leap for example, we’ve spent a lot of time on understanding what it even is at this point. It’s a retinal display for augmented reality but we don’t actually know everything about it. It’s the most amazing product we’ve ever seen, it’s phenomenal, I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s around $2 billion investment of capital raised, and yet we haven’t seen anything yet. Which is… good on them, I completely applaud them, but now for us it’s about understanding as much as we can, and then understanding how we can work with it when it does launch.
How optimistic can you afford to be? Is it better to overshoot or undershoot?
It’s a very good question. I think in some ways it’s better to be a little bit pragmatic, and think about slightly undershooting. But if you’ve got a specific user case that has very limited time, then go for it, overshoot, because if it’s only a proof of concept or a need in that next six months to a year, and it doesn’t have a longer life cycle for it, then go for it. Head for the stars on it.
What are the key advantages to working with such uncertainty? You can’t extrapolate ten years out because who know what the device capability is even going to be.
We definitely don’t know. We can predict through reading and research and knowledge of our industry, maintaining our network, but we certainly can’t predict that far in the future. I guess the advantage of it is that we’re always kept fresh. Our technology is fresh, our ideas are fresh, the concepts we pitch our clients are fresh too. That’s probably the biggest advantage for us in general. We don’t get stagnant, and we’re continuously looking for something new, within the same realm though because you don’t want to be chasing different technologies all the time. We are still talking about AR, VR and 360 here, and that allows you a bit of scope to be thinking ‘What can we do in the next year?’ with that, but not going too much further, because you might be chasing technology or hardware that might not be around in two years time.
Do you have a dreamboard of things you’d like to accomplish should the tech become available?
100 per cent. Some of it’s in my head, some of it’s with the team in Melbourne, but we’ve all got a centralised idea, as well as our own ideas around where we want to take things. It’s about fitting back into that space of validation of your vertical. We spend probably a third of our time when we’re presenting to clients around thinking blue sky. So, we’ve got concepts that we pitch all the time that might not even necessarily be exactly possible, but in our minds we’re always focusing on what’s next as well. Those concepts can be around Magic Leap, as I said, they haven’t actually launched but we’re thinking of phenomenal applications for it if it does launch the way we think that it will.
Time will tell, I guess.
It seems we’re on the precipice of major change. When these AR technologies become ubiquitous it feels like it will change everything.
Certainly. We talk about it as a revolution. You can talk about evolution with website development and technology in general, but for us this is certainly a revolution, particularly when you consider AI, which will start integrating with AR and take it to a whole different level. That’s when it starts to be ingrained in everyone’s lives. But we mentioned before the overwhelming nature of what AR could be, and so it’s also about understanding how to filter that information.
It’d be terrible if it was anything like early websites with pop-ups and flashing bits and all that sort of thing.
It’d probably drive you mad. It literally might. And epileptics probably wouldn’t do very well either. Those are all real concerns.
Do you bring traditional design principles over into the digital space? Because obviously you’re no longer limited by conventional physics and things like that.
A certain amount from the UI point of view, particularly with VR. If you touch on 360 especially you’re looking at a completely different canvas. Some of your principles are exactly the same, overlays and calls-for-action, they’re all the same for us, but when you’re shooting for 360 it’s a whole different world. You have to hide. You literally have to hide every time you shoot unless you’re using a very specific, custom-built rig, and so that has challenges.
From a design perspective, the actual user journey in some ways is actually a very similar process. We take interactive design, understand what we’ve done in that world, and integrate it with AR and VR. It has crossover.
You spoke about the rise of AR, do you think this is going to be ubiquitous in areas such as education? Imagine history for example – you could have an accurate recreation of the entirety of the Western Front, zooming in to witness battles happen at key points in real time. Are these the sort of applications you consider?
Absolutely. I consider that completely true. As long as it’s managed properly from the start, I feel like every classroom would definitely have it, and it would probably be a Magic Leap device, because it takes out all of the distractions of even modern-day AR as we have it. AR is phenomenal, but of course once you take away the smartphone you’ve got tractability as well, you’ve got the power to use your hands. You could be using AR to move shapes, trees, mountains, whatever’s in front of you, changing the directions of armies or the orbit of planets.
The ability for your brain to actually absorb that information, we believe at the moment, from what scientists tell us, is far more powerful than the rote-learning way that we learned when we grew up. That allows huge possibilities in terms of education, but also other realms like engineering and construction. You could look at a site and see the structural integrity of the foundation through augmented sensors that would tell if it’s moved .1cm, you could see it in a virtual overlay, and then when the building is finished from the outside, or wherever you want to be, you can look around you and overlayed are diagnostics of that room. It has applications for the real world.
It’s important that it’s managed, and you’re not overwhelming people mentally. Even as far as considering saturation, people will start to lose understanding of what’s effective in an AR world. That’s a worry in our point of view, and it’s highlighted best by that Japanese videographer [on Vimeo].
But there are huge opportunities as I said before. It can solve problems like, for instance, mechanical repairs. If I could look at my engine and get a diagnostic from it, something that would tell me which sensor to pull out or whatever it may be, I’ve saved myself $1500. That’d be the dream for me. Same with turning this environment that we’re sitting in into a gaming experience or environment. A tree might turn into a monster – amazing.
You could put someone who is paralysed on top of the Great Pyramid if you wanted.
To me that’s one of the most exciting aspects of VR. There are real, legitimate therapeutic uses for this technology.
I couldn’t agree more. Therapy is a beautiful aspect of VR. As I said before, people absorb it better when they’re put into a context and actually believe it, [at least] to a certain extent, so the notion that we’ve all heard before of people overcoming their fear of heights through VR, different phobias with regards to spiders or whatever it might be, having that ability to slowly iterate, add that phobia into their lives and take away the challenge they have, it’s amazing. Absolutely amazing.
GridAKL is Auckland’s innovation precinct, located in Wynyard Quarter – powered by ATEED and run by BizDojo. New spaces are leasing soon – click here to find out more.
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.