Aviation itself is one of humankind’s great technological marvels – something that can be easy to forget when we’re wedged between passengers in coach on some redeye flight. Neutral Digital’s Greg Caterer is using another one of our technological revelations – XR – to reinvent the airline industry, everything from designing aircraft, marketing at trade shows, and making the flight more comfortable for the passenger.
Alan: Today’s guest is Greg Caterer. Greg is the chief operating officer at Neutral Digital, an end-to-end immersive content creator, focusing on the luxury travel sector. Neutral Digital is an aviation-focused content creation house at the cutting edge of immersive interaction solutions; they deliver augmented reality, virtual reality, digital design, architectural visualization, in-flight entertainment solutions, and apps and websites for the aviation industry. In a nutshell, they deliver technology for clients’ campaigns. The Neutral Digital team consists of professionals with a wide-ranging expertise in VR digital experience, design, software development, and CGI production. Neutral Digital can be found at neutral.digital. Welcome to the show, Greg.
Greg: Thank you very much, Alan. Thanks for having me on the show.
Alan: My absolute pleasure. I’m really excited to learn about the stuff you’re doing. I’ve seen some of the videos, I’ve seen what you guys are doing; holy crap. It’s really, really awesome, the stuff you’re doing.
Greg: Thank you. Yeah, it is. We’re certainly very proud of all the work that we’ve been doing, particularly since specializing in the aviation sector, and then obviously more broadly, the travel sector as well. We feel as though we get the chance to educate an industry, as well as creating and selling a product, and really helping to define exactly how this niche can use extended reality, and in particular, virtual reality technology. So, yeah, we’re very proud of what we do.
Alan: So, okay — let’s get right into this. One of the things that blew me away was the photorealism that you guys have created of 3D models and virtual environments, of being in an airplane. Maybe explain — if you can, speak to brands that are using this; if you can’t, that’s fine — but speak to what it is you’re building, and why that’s important.
And let’s unpack this, because if you’re somebody who’s in the aviation world, this is a technology that can be used right across your enterprise; from previsualization, marketing, sales, training, remote assistance, remote collaboration — it can be used everywhere. So, what is the focus of what you guys have been doing, and what are the results that people are seeing?
Greg: You’re absolutely right with your observation, Alan, about it. Especially the breadth of use cases that this technology has.
So, there’s a lot in this. I’m going to try and condense this down to a relatively concise answer. But broadly speaking, because of the replicability and the repeatability of everything that’s created in CG, we would build experiences that focus on marketing, training, and design for airlines, the component manufacturers, the training bodies, et cetera. Anybody who’s got anything to do with aviation, whether it’s the high cost of acquisition for the product itself, or whether something intensely physical that needs to be shown off.
So, a really good use case — and one of the main workstreams and strands that we tend to focus on — is marketing. There’s a very, very big cost benefit to this, and also, it calls out, perhaps, the benchmark technology that existed before this, which may be — from the aviation sector’s point of view — a little bit fell into the realms of “tech for tech’s sake,” in a way. So we’ve taken this from a marketing point-of-view, and I’ll talk about the Air Canada project — that was our very first and biggest in this domain that we did a couple of years ago, in a minute — the solves two really key problems.
First of all, by creating experiences that focus on the airline experience itself – so, all of the branding piece, what it’s actually like to be on board an aircraft with a specific carrier — you can, for trade shows or for sale centers, for example, we found that our technology really has its home in solving a cost problem. Traditional methods of going about the trade shows particularly, as the focus, would be to send a cabin cross-section cutout — or indeed, physical seats — to trade shows at great expense. That can cost anything up to $100,000-$120,000 per trade show, depending on the complexity of the physical setup.
Alan: Wow!Hold on a sec. So, these plane companies would bring, like, a section of the cabin? This is insane. And now with virtual reality, what would the cost be to deploy… to make everything, top to bottom, would be far less than one tradeshow. Am I wrong?
Greg: No, you’re not wrong at all. A little bit varies on the complexity of what it is that wants to be shown off. But typically, these kinds of experiences in VR pay for themselves against logistics costs and physical setup costs within 1-2 trade shows. So not only do you get that benefit to the costs of shipping — and this still happens a lot of the time, by the way. This is still very much a method that a lot of airlines are still preferring. But also, beyond that, it allows a user — as we know, the full VR technology is extremely effective at doing — it allows the user to feel completely immersed in the experience, and it allows them to drive it as well, in the way that it’s built is the same as the way that you build VR video games. We prefer the Unreal Engine to build all of our expenses of this kind.
Alan: Let’s just pause for a second, and just touch on on that. You mentioned Unreal Engine. Can you maybe explain to listeners who have never heard of Unreal — maybe they’ve heard of Epic Games and Fortnight, and they think “video games” or something like that — can you explain how the game engines, or the development engines, are being used to develop this type of content? Just just a quick overview.
Greg: Yeah, sure. There are, broadly speaking, two game engines that are used for this. There’s Unreal, and then there’s Unity. Unity, we find, is extremely effective for slightly more screen-based experiences. We have been working in Unreal for a long time, and we’ve certainly built a team around that. We’ve got a number of Unreal developers who work for us here in-house, and they’re extremely experienced at what they do.
We find that the combination of the ability to produce experiences that are both extremely visually-complex and as photo-real as possible, along with the interactive properties of using that engine, are extremely powerful for these kinds of experiences. In the same way, like I said before, as if you would build a video game VR using the Unreal Engine, that really immerses the user. We find that that’s an extremely powerful sensory tool, in the same way as fully interactive, fully immersive gaming is to make the user feel like they’re somewhere else, and that’s why we use this methodology.
Alan: Wonderful. Is there a cost difference between using Unity versus Unreal? Or even finding developers that are good for each of them? Is that a challenge for different ones? I know the CEO of the Unity had mentioned, at one point, that about 70 percent of all virtual and augmented reality was built on Unity. And then somewhere else, I read a stat that 70 percent of all the money is made on Unreal. So, is there…?
Greg: I didn’t realize that. I think industry, generally, is still getting used to this a little bit, because perhaps using this means of building these experiences is still relatively new from the B2B point of view. So, access to these skills, potentially, is still not quite as open and plentiful and vast as it could yet be.
We haven’t found any difficulties in accessing the right talent for this kind of thing. Like I say, all of our guys in-house are extremely skilled. The blend of Unreal development and Unity developers that we have is obviously something that favors the Unreal Engine at the moment, because that’s the engine that we typically build most of our experiences in. But I think, as VR cements itself as a medium of communication for a number of different sectors — and indeed, is a necessary business process, which we at Neutral Digital firmly believe is going to be the case within not so many years from now – obviously, as any industry goes and builds itself up, I think access to those skills is going to become a lot wider and a lot more freely available. But for now, there’s good access to the right talent, and we at Neutral certainly feel like we’ve picked pretty much the best of the bunch.
Alan: I’ll be honest. I’ve seen a lot of VR and AR, and the stuff that you guys are doing… that’s why I asked you to be on the show, because 1. It’s beautiful. It’s really well done. But 2. You’re working with some really big brands. Let’s look at how the brands are using this. You talked about bringing it to trade shows. Can you describe specific projects, goals, and KPIs — or key performance indicators — of what they’re using to measure success with this?
Greg: Absolutely. So let’s use the Air Canada example as the main one. They were our original client in this domain: they approached us with a desire to go beyond the physical infrastructure of trade shows, and create something a lot more immersive that saves a lot of cost from logistics and having these physical infrastructures in place, on the one hand. Secondly, it went a little bit beyond 360 degree video, for example, in that, for this kind of use case, 360 definitely has a really solid place, but being able to build these experiences digitally means that you can create something that’s first of all user-led, and then obviously with that, it is extremely interactive.
So, they wanted to create something that first of all could harness those cost savings, from being able to just create an experience that was very moldable, very multisensory. And then they also wanted to create something that went a little bit beyond what the benchmark was at the time. The fact that all of this technology and all these experiences — every asset that you build in the Unreal Engine and use in this way — can be replicated for other disciplines is also extremely powerful for airlines, component manufacturers, aircraft manufacturers alike.
For example, we’re now starting to see a very, very strong set of use cases in the training sphere; training for cabin crew, and also training for ground operations, and then design. The ability to collaboratively design a cabin without using physical mockups until any designs — for example, of the entire cabin, or even just an individual seat-by-seat design — has been completely signed off by all parties involved in VR. We’re finding that, from the marketing use case, it’s grown legs, in the way that this can be used is really starting to define itself. And we’re certainly seeing a snowball effect, in terms of the way that our content is digested, and the kinds of expenses that we’re building.
Alan: You mentioned 360, and for the people who are listening who don’t understand the difference, virtual reality – basically, you’re taking a scene and putting it into a headset and immersing somebody in this complete environment. There are two types right now; there’s what’s called three degrees of freedom, meaning you can look left, look right, look up and down, but you can’t move in the space.
Then you have what’s called six degrees of freedom, meaning [you can] look left, right, up and down, and then move left, right, up and down. You have this real ability to move around. Just that simple change really makes the immersion amplified by factors of exponentials, and then adding controllers or the ability to reach out and interact with things — maybe turn on the TV or touch something — that just adds a whole new layer.
When people are in virtual reality and they’re able to interact with the world around them, it’s as much a memory as a real memory of doing something. I remember one of my first experiences: I went into a human heart — actually walked around inside a human heart. I will, for the rest of my life, never forget that — I feel like I walked into a human heart; very much the way that you guys are making people feel like they’re sitting in a beautiful, first-class lounge of an airline.
Greg: It’s amazing you mentioned that as well, Alan, because there’s a piece of research that’s been done by the National Training Laboratory, which has found that retention rates — speaking of learning — for lecture-style learning, for example, are roughly at 5 percent across the board; and in reading, rates at roughly about 10 percent; whereas VR, as a medium of communication and learning, scored a retention rate of 75 percent, which is only just below the idea of teaching others as a means of learning something or retaining information. So in that sense, it’s no accident that VR is already being rolled out as a really cool part of the syllabus in a lot of schools here in the UK, as well.
Alan: It’s no surprise to me, because the first time I tried virtual reality — the very first time — I put it on my head, and there’s a guy called Chris Milk who showed me. I put it on, and I was standing on stage next to Beck in a concert hall, looking around from a first-person view. I was on stage! It was just this kind of “aha!” moment, and it was in that moment that I had what most people in this industry have — that epiphany moment, and they get into the industry right away — because I realized that this is more than just entertainment. It’s more than just videos, or being on stage. This is the future of human communications.
If you take it one step further, it’s obviously the future of education. Because if I can put you in a lecture, and you remember 5 percent; give you a book, you read, 10. Okay. That’s 15 percent retention. But if I put you in VR, and give you an experience that you actually do? At 75 percent retention rates, that is off the charts. And if you take that into enterprise for training, you cannot fight that, and you can’t argue against it. There’s no way, shape or form… there’s no cost that will come close to offsetting that type of engagement, that type of retention.
I personally see the future of all education and training as virtual and augmented reality — mixed reality — as we move to the glasses in the next five years. Boeing is seeing a 25 percent decrease in the time it takes workers to do complex tasks like wiring, harnesses, stuff like that, using heads-up displays. But more importantly, they’re seeing near-zero error rates. When you combine the increase in retention rates, decrease in error rates, this is something that the whole world must get on. And they will. And it’s happening, as you know: it’s 2019, it’s starting to blow up like crazy.
So let me ask you: what are some of the major challenges that you guys faced when you were starting? What are the challenges that people just starting out now are going to face? What can they expect?
Greg: One of the biggest challenges that we face, I think, is in terms of educating these sectors to a set of use cases and benefits, at the same time as building and selling a product. Because this way of doing things — especially for a sector like aviation — potentially is still relatively new, we find that, in order to convince of the compellingness or the coherence of the product, we need first to educate as to what it’s actually doing.
I think that challenge comes from a preconception — a totally understandable and natural preconception — this is, in various forms, an industry has been around for a little while. But 360 technology’s been around for quite some time. The perceptions of it are that, perhaps, people don’t necessarily understand exactly which pieces of their business process it can benefit just yet. Although, like you say, this is very, very quickly going to become cemented as something absolutely necessary within the business process, across the board, across all spectra.
So, that’s one challenge: helping people to see exactly what the use cases are, what the financial benefit can be. Because when you think of marketing experiences, for example — this being one of the biggest chunks of the types of work that we tend to take on — aside from the soft benefit of an airline working with us on the projects and starting to use it at a major trade show they’re there to sponsor, and seeing thousands of people go through the experience in a weekend. They’re compelled by, for example, seeing somebody within a pod have, effectively, a game-style — very fun, very memorable — experience within an Oculus Rift headset, the entire experience being reflected on the screen. That’s got a lot of pull. But at the moment, other than recording the number of people who go through it, and then using that as a KPI, it’s quite hard to see the exact tangible benefits of a case.
By implementing VR, I’m going to see purchase consideration, number of flights booked — if I’m an airline — increased by X, or the popularity of this route increased by Y percent, for example. That’s still something that we’re a little bit far away from.
Alan: It’s interesting you say that, because when we first started selling this, the first question out of customers’ minds was, “who else is doing it, and what is the ROI?” You’re like, “nobody, and we have no idea; still want to spend $10,000?” Man, it is really expensive.
Greg: That’s so true. And therefore — just going back to the educational piece of what we’re trying to help a sector to understand is — from a cost/benefit point of view, and from an immersion point of view, the weight of this changes again. The way that you can, at the same time, save a whole heap of costs on things. Like grounding planes, for example. If we look at this from a training perspective, depending on the aircraft, it can easily cost up to $150 K to ground a plane for enough time to enact training on the cabin crew. Again, that’s one of the use cases whereby having a VR experience would pay for itself really, really quickly.
Not only that, but in grounding a plane to give training – typically, that’s for educating, let’s say, cabin crew on a piece of the experience that might be relatively administrative — something that they could definitely do in a more fun way more easily in VR; it doesn’t need to be a particularly complex scenario, necessarily. By having training so scalable, you can deploy training to wherever you can put an Oculus Rift and a laptop. Saves on costs, means that people can digest top-up training all the time.
One of our biggest things at Neutral is that — in focusing on the aviation sector — one of our real primary goals, with all of our clients across the board, is to improve the passenger experience, through various different means. With training, for example, you’re delivering top-up training, or complementary training, or on-the-side training from the physical aircraft piece. That allows cabin crew as part of their six-week journey, at the beginning of their training course, to get even more familiar than they would otherwise be able to with various different processes that they need to go through in flight. That would help to improve the passenger experience from a design point of view, you’re designing better spaces for them. From a marketing point of view, in helping to understand exactly what experience they’re going to be having when they’re on board with you guys in a really, really fun way.
It’s largely about educating them. I personally give quite a lot of talks around this subject, to aviation-focused trade shows and that kind of thing. Beyond that, obviously, it’s selling the product itself, but it’s been described to me recently – and I don’t know if you’d agree with this, Alan, as an XR expert — as being a bit like skiing. It’s something that’s actually quite hard to describe to people in words what it feels like, and what it does. And people’s minds typically start to whir and buzz and really think of all the possibilities, once they’ve experienced something in VR properly. I think we find that in pretty much 100 percent of cases, whereby we’re giving demos or we’re at trade shows, for example. It’s really about experiencing and feeling how powerful it is.
Alan: No, I couldn’t agree more. One of the things that you just touched on a second ago that really made me think, “wow, this is amazing,” is that you’re using these… you’re partnered with the airlines, and you say, “here, we’re going to create this experience for your marketing and your trade shows. That same experience, we’re going to alter slightly, and use it for your training. That same experience can be used for training for new employees, can be training for specific parts of the airline.” They don’t have to recreate everything from scratch. They just can add onto these modules. That’s a really powerful thing, especially in technology. It’s very rare when you can take one asset and start reusing it across the enterprise.
Greg: Oh, 100 percent. That’s also one of the benefits that we find a building these experiences in full CG over 360, is that you’ve got the ability to stack on top, take away, change, chop-and-change as you go. Whereas with the 360 experience, for example — not wanting to, by any means, dumb down the benefits that they have and how fun they can be, of course — one thing you do miss out on is the fact that, if you want to change anything, it’s video-based, so you need to start again. You’re right back to the beginning.
We find that working with a lot of clients, as soon as they need to do anything from… there’s been an amenity kit update in a certain class on board, for example. That’s an individual asset, that in itself can be changed enormously easy, and then just re-aggregated into the experience. The ease of being able to keep current with what exactly it is that anybody deploying these kinds of experiences wants to show is incredibly powerful.
And yes, like you say, the ability to replicate the use cases, once you’ve got a base asset in your library — in the form of an aircraft, for example — you can just as easily create a marketing experience onboard a virtualized A350-1000 as you can a training one. It’s very, very powerful indeed.
Alan: It really is. So, I know what’s going to happen. People are going to ask questions like, “how many people?” “What does it take to build up something like this?” When somebody calls you and they say, “we have a new airplane, we want to make a marketing experience,” and you say to them, “OK, well, we’re going to make this for you.” How long is it going to take for the guys to build it? What are the costs surrounding this? What are some of the things that you need from a customer to get building on this?
Greg: Good question. The timelines for — let’s say, for example — an experience that incorporates an exterior element, where there’s a specific aircraft involved, and is an interactive outside piece, maybe celebrating various deliveries, and then maybe two or three classes on board, with a very, very coherent storyboard — I’ll touch on that again in a second as well, but we firmly believe that storyboard holds paramount importance to the relevance of the experience, and its ability to achieve a business goal. I’d love to talk about that more in a second — to integrate and experience that does that and really shows off the brand in the best possible way.
That takes about 12 to 16 weeks, typically. In terms of cost, it’s very variable. It’s hard to put a specific cost on on any kind of work.
Alan: What are some of the variables? Give us a range: is this a quarter million to a million? Or $100,000 to half a million? What is the range, and what are some of the variables that people need to think about? Photo realism versus AI-driven avatars. What are some of the things that drive the costs up?
Greg: Complexity of storyboard is probably one of the biggest things; the way you want the experience to pan out. So, how gameified it is, for example. So we created something very, very cool with Cathay Pacific last year, for example, to celebrate the arrival of the A350-1000 into their fleet, and the opening of the new Hong Kong-Washington route which, again, was launched to a really, really cool trade show called Wine & Dine in Hong Kong last October. That has a gameified element in it where, for example, the user gets to role play as a member of cabin crew, which makes them feel a whole lot closer to the brand, really conveys the warmth of the Cathay brand, that kind of thing.
That’s a relatively complex experience. It could just be, for example, that we’re working with somebody to celebrate the arrival of a new cabin layout in a certain class, or a new seat. Those are the kinds of things that add variables in the number of assets as well, and is obviously a pretty heavily-influencing factor. In terms of the cost ranges… unhelpfully, Alan, it’s pretty much any of the above that you just mentioned, in terms of cost brackets, depending on the complexity of the expense itself.
Alan: What would be the minimum entry point? So my guess is — and I don’t know your business — my guess is between $100,000-$200,000, would be the entry to do something like this.
Greg: Yeah, I think an entry piece where you’re looking at celebrating something pretty specific would be towards the lower end of those two figures. It would be more like around the $100K-mark than it would the $200K-mark.
On average we tend to say that, for example, if you creating a marketing experience with us that celebrates the same kinds of things that you would normally want to bring out at a trade show, and you want to do it in such a way as you’re not making your visitors sit in it just in a seat, still with the trade show environment surrounding them, such they can’t really tell that they’re meant to be on board an aircraft necessarily: these kinds of things typically pay for themselves within one to two trade shows.
Alan: Yeah, absolutely. And then the ability to reuse assets, that’s vital.
Greg: Yeah, exactly.
Alan: Here’s something that I’ve not touched on with any other guest on the show; what about the earned media that these companies are getting, by being forward leading and forward-thinking on this? Some of the earned media that some of these brands are getting far outweighs the cost of even developing this. So, they spend a quarter-million dollars, and then they get $10-million in earned media. Is that in line with what you guys are seeing?
Greg: Totally, 100 percent. So a couple of examples against that, Air Canada being the most current one right now. There is shortly to be an Epic Games case study on the experience that they’ve built with us — or maybe all of the experiences that they’ve built with us — across the entire spectrum of aircraft with which we worked with them, and we worked with them on three aircraft. That’ll generate enormously good PR, perhaps in circles that, without doing VR experience, wouldn’t have been perhaps quite so forthcoming. It’s definitely something that is going to help the Air Canada brand, to really cement itself as being one that invests in innovation, and beyond that — and indeed as a consequence of that — has the passenger experience and the comfort of the passenger rights at the front of its thinking all the time.
That’s definitely a very big PR benefit to this. It shows the brand as being an investor in tech, and investor in innovation, and importantly, a brand that knows how to use tech for good, for the benefit of the passenger. With Cathay, for example, at the Wine & Dine show, where they released this experience the first time last year — whereby they were prize giveaways around this as well, being able to win a place on that flight from Hong Kong to Washington — we really found that the softer benefits of people being able to walk past a really cool stand, which was meant to be the the front of an A350-1000 cut off, with a glass panel at the back of it, with the experiences going on inside, and with the TV screen pointing outwards to attract more people into the queue, it really got people’s creative juices flowing. It really got people feeling excited, in the same way as they would if they were going into a traditionally B2C-focused VR experience. Perhaps you can compare it to something along the lines of Secrets of the Empire, the Star Wars experience — that I believe his company in Toronto, actually — it’s that kind of emotion that it’s calling on, and that kind of PR value as showing off the brand, as being an investor in tech, and the brand that’s seeing this with the communication medium that it’s going to be across the board very soon. They’re showing themselves as early adopters, real innovators in this space, and that brings with it enormous PR value, of course.
Alan: It’s interesting that you say early adopters – and I think brands that are getting it now are still early adopters. But by the end of 2019, this is just going to be the way you do business. We’re going to go away from, “you’re technologically advanced because you’re using VR/AR,” to, “you’re not using VR/AR? What’s wrong with you?”
Greg: I really think we’re on the cusp of that. I think you’re absolutely right. You could well be right on the money and saying it’s going to be within 2019. We’re certainly starting to see a snowball effect, and we’re really now starting to see the more projects that we work on really call to a specific use case, and the more brands are starting to approach us really understanding what the benefits are. I think once that has reached its tipping point, then this medium, this business process, will show itself as being as vital as we know it’s going to be very, very quickly.
Alan: I want to talk about one other thing that I saw that you guys are doing. It’s not in VR. It’s not in AR. It’s actually in 3D on Web. What you’ve done is taken the same asset that you put people in VR on, and brought it onto Web in a 3D player environment, so people can spin the plane around and look at the plane from different aspects. Talk to us about that type of idea — of using this asset for a web-based experience, or a mobile experience as well, because it’s not all about just having it on your face as a headset at a trade show. This is something that can scale to their website, and to millions and millions of people.
By the end of 2019, there will be over two billion smartphones that will be AR-enabled. That’s a lot of people that will have powerful AR in the pocket of their jeans, being able to pull out their phone, and maybe drop a 747 in their driveway.
Greg: You’re absolutely right. I’ve seen some really cool experiences in the automotive sector that do that. I know BMW got one for the i8 as well, where you can drop one in front of your face in the driveway. That’s obviously something that is extremely useful for tech that they know that consumers have got everyday access to.
Alan: I’m going to put — because we have a Lamborghini one — I’m going to drop a Lamborghini in my living room, take a picture, and I’ll put it in the show notes below.
Greg: That’s a great idea. I know McLaren have got a really good experience in that regard as well. They built something really cool in VR as well, that’s more of a configurator setup. But there’s a lot going on in the automotive space as well, which I think is an entire other podcast in itself, potentially, material-wise.
But from an aviation point of view and these complementary assets — these extra assets that you can get from the experience, you’re absolutely right. Whilst we’re in a day and age where hardware, such as the Oculus Rift, the upcoming Oculus Quest, for example, the HTC Vive, are much more applicable piece of hardware for businesses to buy and use for trade show use cases, for example, where you put a lot of for people going through the same device. And it’s really important to be able to scale these experiences out to what consumers can currently tap into from the comfort of their own homes.
One of the beauties of having both incredibly interactive and demonstrative experiences, as well as incredible visuals, one of the best things that that does, it means that we can boil down assets — boil down slices of the experience from the VR experience itself — that can be used on marketing channels, websites, YouTube channels, Vimeo channels, for example, to allow the consumer at home to access this through different devices, and to still have much of the same exploratory benefits of the experience we create without necessarily having the access to the hardware that the experience itself was built for in the first place. Whilst the hardware market is where it is, and whilst it’s obviously not something that everybody’s got access to all the time for price or the ability to put it up in a home, all those kinds of things are there. Obviously, it’s not reached 100 percent mass adoption just yet. It’s really powerful for brands to be able to have that.
One of the most recent projects that we completed, we had the pleasure of working with British Airways last few months, around the release of their new Club Suite offering for the A350 aircraft. A large chunk of the benefit beyond the familiarization piece, of course, was the fact that those assets can be used in marketing channels, can be used to spread awareness about and generate appetite for a really, really exciting development for them. Also, as part of their 100-year anniversary, and very much as a traditional marketing piece that had these extra 360 video pieces built into it from the assets we created, and the ability to, again, show themselves as being an investor in tech and demonstrate this class that obviously doesn’t physically yet exist, but will do very soon. Having built it in VR, it’s now important for us to to work with them to be able to get it out into the public domain. And that’s exactly what these assets are used for. It’s definitely something that has great effect.
Alan: So, moving a little bit along, what I would ask you is: what’s one of the best XR experiences that you’ve ever had personally? It can be within your company or outside. But what is a thing that you did that was like, wow? what was your “wow” moment?
Greg: Our head of VR, Sergio, who’s got an incredible amount of industry knowledge and been through an incredible number of experiences like this would a hundred percent agree with me on this: The Secrets of the Empire Star Wars experiences is pretty much streets ahead, in terms of everything that I’ve experienced. And this is very much my B2C point of view, obviously. It spent a little time here in London, in Westfield. The ability to do exactly what XR is meant to do, in the sense that it transports your mind to a completely different reality and makes you genuinely convinced that you’re somewhere else, and taking part in a different set of activities, and opens up a whole number of possibilities of different kinds of interactions. You can have different worlds you inhabit, combined with the way that it interacts with physical assets. For example, there’s a piece at the beginning, where you can pick up a gun as the start of your mission, and there’s a physical gun in front of you, as well as being in the VR experience — the way that the physical world and the virtual world have been meshed and embedded together is mind-blowingly powerful. As far as anything I’ve experienced, that’s definitely right at the top for now.
Alan: That’s the Void, right?
Alan: That’s the Void.
Greg: Yes. Yes, it is the Void. Absolutely.
Alan: That’s the Void, and they’re in a number of different cities. There’s one in New York. It’s a Utah-based company called The Void. And I think it’s thevoid.com. I’m pretty sure it is. There’s one in Toronto. There’s actually two in Toronto, believe it or not; we’re the only city in the world to have two. They have a bunch of different experiences: Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Wreck-It Ralph, where you’re actually going in in the Wreck-It Ralph world. So that’s an incredible experience, and you’re not the first person to say that as well. So I think the guys at the Void have really done a great job at bringing the magic into VR and put haptic floors, scent machines — they’ve hijacked all your senses. And I think that’s really important.
Do you guys use anything other than visuals and audio? Have you used haptics or scent machines or anything like that?
Greg: Yeah. We have. To a relatively simplified degree, we do use haptics to demonstrate touch, and pick up, and various different actions within a lot of our airline-focused experiences. One of the reasons why we haven’t gone too much further with that just yet, and rather used as a mechanism to demonstrate what it would feel like to pick something up in the physical world, is because of the wide variety of different people who are going through these kinds of experiences – and I want to talk about The Void a bit more in that sense in a second, because creating content like that and experiences like that is enormously helpful and just generally increasing the awareness of what VR can do, and it’s something that’s going to help all content creators across the board to be able to communicate their message more clearly.
One of the things that we really focus on with abilities experiences is making it is as intuitive and as simple as it possibly can be for the user; not adding too many buttons and bells and whistles, making the instructions really clear, really highlighting the interactions that there are, but not including too much so as to confuse or overwhelm the user. But certainly to the extent that we can without over complicating things and really helping the user to intuitively use what we build. And we have integrated set pieces of haptic response within the Oculus Rift controllers for pieces of the experiences that we build, yes. I think that’s definitely a whole heap more potential for that, as the industry grows and consciousness towards this means of doing things.
Alan: I’m just going to throw this out, because you talked about the best experience you had. But what is the most impressive business use case that you’ve seen so far? What is the one thing that you go, wow, I never thought of that, but wow, that is a really good business use case?
Greg: That’s a really good question. To be honest, we’re at the stage in the industry where there’s a whole lot of impressive experiences out there. And having a tour of the Epic Games studio last year was really something that — I’d only recently joined the digital by this stage — that was really an educational day for me.
There’s not really an individual one. I’m disappointing the going to have to offer that in my answer. The space, however, where I feel like the most impressive across-the-board B2B technology is currently existing is in automotive. A very obvious use case and very obvious extension to what previously existed where VR would find its home would be configurators; would be in building a luxury car from the ground up. I know McLaren got something like this. Toyota have got something that’s really cool along these lines as well. It’ss the ability to really feel as though you’re in the room with that car.
You mentioned the idea of using AR to place a Lamborghini on your driveway. I’ve seen the BMW i8 experience as well, which is extremely powerful. I really feel as though, in VR, you can go even a step beyond that, and within whatever space you want to place it in — whatever environment you want to place it in — to be able to be really close up to a super luxury vehicle, to take it apart using interactive VR, to examine different elements of it, to see how it’s built from the ground up. I’ve seen experiences where you can explode the car, if you will, out, so you can examine every single tiny detailed component of what makes up the beautiful thing that you see in front of you, and then zoom it all back together, and just see how it meshes together and works as a system, is incredibly powerful. I think a lot of the most powerful B2B visuals, the most powerful means of really getting a market excited about a product, a lot of that exists within automotive. It’s a really, really impressive space we’re moving up to right now.
Alan: It’s interesting you mentioned that, because one of our previous guests on the show was Elizabeth Baron, who was the head of VR for Ford Motor Company in Detroit for the last 20 years. She has seen everything, from CAVE systems, to early VR headsets, to multi-million dollar experimental headsets. They even built one with magnetic tracking. But if you can imagine magnetic tracking, you can’t have any metal. So they built an entire cockpit out of wood.
Greg: Oh, wow.
Alan: The great thing about the way VR is being used at Ford is they’re actually using it for design first. They’ll bring the car in, they’ll have design meetings. They’ll look at different aspects of the car real-time, and then management will come in — in virtual reality from around the world — and look at the vehicle from all angles, different lighting. They’ve got real-time ray tracing, meaning the lighting bounces off the car the right way. They’ve got emulators where you can drive the cars, and then, that same asset that they’re using for design — once that car’s designed and approved by everybody and they know they’re going to go to build with it — now, you can take that and use it as a marketing asset. They’re doing the same thing you guys are doing with airlines, only with cars, and reusing those assets for marketing and sales distribution. One of the coolest things I saw was Jaguar using VR to sell cars that wouldn’t be ready for three years.
Greg: That’s insane. That’s absolutely the power of it. The ability to generate an appetite for something that, otherwise, you would only have sketches or words to be able to describe these things in. Bravo to Ford; that’s a fantastic use case and especially the ability to bring, like you say, upper management in from remote parts of the world and co-design and co-approve this thing before it’s even been physically created, and then reuse that asset for various different purposes. How powerful is that, in terms of being able to save on costs? In terms of being able to save on logistics, and people having to be in the same space in order to be able to save on physical prototyping of components? Or indeed, the entire vehicle? And in order to make the experience fun, hyper-visual, hyper-interactive, and make you feel like you’re right next to the actual vehicle, when it doesn’t exist yet!
Alan: Yeah, I know it’s crazy. It doesn’t even exist!
Alan: It’s here’s another crazy one. HTC has been promoting this; Bell Helicopters just designed a new, future-age helicopter. It normally takes them 2-3 years to develop a helicopter. They built the whole thing in virtual reality in six months.
Alan: So they saved a 10 times increase in productivity.
Greg: Exactly. And that’s an asset to an experience that they’ve built that’s never going to become defunct. If there are any changes required to that base helicopter model, for example, they can be made. They can be made in real-time, and they’re going to be able to use that for a variety of different purposes going forward, which is just not something they’d have access to with a physical mockup.
When I first joined Neutral, I hadn’t had a massive amount of exposure to VR that just yet, so there was a lot of learning to be done, a lot of upscaling in the first month or so. I really saw, from having seen some unusual experiences before I actually joined the company, I really saw this as being about as close to teleportation as you can get. And I know that’s a very childlike, somewhat basic way of describing what VR does. But it’s got the same kind of multi-dimensional transportative benefits to it, and abilities to it, that can genuinely make you feel like you’re completely somewhere else, and can genuinely make you feel like you’re next to something that doesn’t actually exist in reality, but really tricks your brain, convinces your brain into thinking that it does. It’s so powerful, and it really is. Have you read the book, The Fourth Transformation, by Robert Scoble?
Alan: I have. Robert actually is going to be a guest on the show, as well.
Greg: Noway. Well, that’s one of the things that I read as part of my upscaling before I joined this company.
Alan: You‘ve got to get Charlie Fink’s Convergence as well. And Charlie Fink’s Metaverse, even though he’s spelled MetaVRse wrong. Oh, no.
Greg: Oh no! He put an E between the V and the R, I take it.
Alan: What the heck was he thinking?
Greg: I’m sorry to hear that.
Alan: I was actually one of the contributing authors to Convergence. I know Robert, and I know Charlie, very well. Robert and I have geeked out many a times, and as a matter of fact, the first VR experience I ever did with Chris Milk with it, that concert was with Robert Scoble.
Greg: Oh, no way. Amazing.
Alan: We both tried it together at the Curiosity Camp, was Eric Schmidt’s camp for tech people?
Greg: Geez. No way. That’s so cool.
Alan: That was my introduction to VR. So I feel very blessed to have been brought into this world by the fathers of the industry.
Greg: Yeah. People of that sort of caliber. That’s really amazing. What an intro.
Alan: Yeah, no kidding. I dove in headfirst and it’s been an incredible run.
So let’s let’s shift gears to ask one final question, then we’ll recap. This has been an amazing interview so far, and I really want to get your insights on this next part. What do you see for the future of VR/AR and XR as it pertains to business? What do you see the future is?
Greg: I 100 percent agree with an observation that you made earlier, that potentially, by the end of 2019 — or indeed, whenever this is going to happen; it’s a matter of when, not if — that VR is going to be something that businesses simply need as a core business process. Whether that be for communication purposes, or whether it be for familiarization with a product internally, or for training purposes, or for using as part of a consultative engagement with a client. If you’re a large consultancy, for example, I think clients are going to release and start seeing the need for this. And those who create projects and business, and work collaboratively with their own clients, will need to start integrating this into their own business processes in time. It’s going to be an incredibly core part of innovation centers at large companies, and business processes, and the product development lifecycle — for all sizes of business — within whatever timeframe that may be. I think, certainly, within five years — a little bit contingent on the hardware market and developments therein, a little bit on the number of content creators out there really focusing on specialism and really honing in on having very specific skill sets. I think it’s really largely about that.
I think it maybe is looking like it’s going to be a relatively fragmented marketplace from the content creator’s point of view, which I think is why it’s so important to specialize, to retain a sense of serious definition, potentially. Although, there are obviously lots of lots of agencies out there doing a more generalist approach really, really well. So perhaps I’m completely wrong with that. But I think it’s going to be something that within the not-so-distant future is going to be an opportunity cost if you don’t have it; it’s going to be a much more rare state of affairs that the company doesn’t use VR, AR, or any of the extended realities, the mixed realities, in some capacity for something. I know that that’s a very sweeping answer, but I very much passionately believe that this is indeed exactly as a Scoble describes it in his book; that it’s going to be the industry revolution that the smartphone was in so many ways. It’s going to become 100 percent necessary for business.
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