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April 27th, 2021 | by Mathieu Gayet

"Even brands have to rethink their narrative in three dimensions" - Cathy Hackl (Futures Intelligence Group)

If you are interested in virtual reality, its hardware and narrative developments, you should already follow Cathy Hackl on social networks (including Twitter). As a specialized consultant, Cathy has worked with some of the biggest companies in the sector - including Magic Leap. For the past two years she has hosted the Future Insiders Podcast, analyzing emerging technology trends for The Futures Intelligence Group while promoting Avatar Dimension Studios, which specializes in volumetric capture. Quite a resume!

Once was Future Lightouse... then the Metaverse

Cathy Hackl - Now I'm the vice president of partnerships and strategic growth at Avatar Dimension, which is a Microsoft Mixed Reality capture studio - doing volumetric video. We produce holograms, we work with clients to figure out what's the best way for them to use volumetric video to tell stories, and humanizing stories in a totally innovative way. It’s very exciting! And I have my own consultant agency called Futures Intelligence Group, working with a lot of brands including Fortune 500 groups. We’re working on the idea of branded worlds, virtual goods, and more metaverse strategies.

C. H. - I come from a storytelling background first. As a journalist for many years, nominated for an Emmy. I've always been a storyteller, then transitioned to PR and marketing for a while... and eventually found my way to virtual reality! My first big break in the immersive field was as chief communications officer of Future Lighthouse (a lot of great folks came out of this company), which was a cinematic VR studio. The first year of Venice VR we had two beautiful pieces there (MELITA and THE ARGOS FILE). We got to work with Sony Pictures (SNATCH), Oculus and others. I think this experience is still part of who I am today. Of course we're still pioneering right now on interactive storytelling, but at the same time it feels like we started a long time ago!

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MELITA by Nicolás Alcalá

C. H. - We were really trying to figure out how to tell stories in VR back then. MELITA (link) was such a beautiful and innovative story. We were creating the “printing press of the future” - That's how I envision it. We're building these memories for the future and experimenting with volumetric video, capturing stories of people to live on digital assets. With VR you're putting something in front of someone, they're living it directly - through the experience. It’s the same for brands; think about creating for your consumer. It's not just about product placement but the memory you're creating for them. This is why you need a storytelling perspective! Brands do tell stories. They have to: stories are part of what makes us human. And it’s exciting to see where our industry is accelerating to and the talent that's been unleashed from indie creators to big brands involved.

XR storytelling for brands and marketing

C. H. - Virtual human space, metahumans, AI and avatars with Soul Machines (link), 3D fashion modelling with Cameron-James Wilson (The Digitals - link)... What are these virtual humans and virtual models that we're creating? What do they represent? Brands have to rethink their story and their narrative in 3D. That's hard because they need to change the way they think. They're all starting to add 3D models to their websites, but that’s still a flat surface. You need to go further. I always talk about spatial activations for our next steps, which is basically remodeling reality to give us the right information at the right place. Brands will adapt to that, they will change how they approach the content, they develop it and how they deploy it.

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Shudu, a digital avatar created by Cameron-James Wilson

C. H. - And it opens up new interesting jobs as well in many industries, such as 3D designers in fashion. Brands that are willing to feel uncomfortable now and get past it will discover what kind of magic happens outside their comfort zone. The ones that are ready to move forward and to think through XR - how they tell their story in a different way to a different audience - it is going to be really exciting to watch them. When they understand what the revenue opportunity and the scalability is, they will get it.

C. H. - Of course you see them doing lots of experiments on Snapchat, for example - with some great partnerships. You're going to keep seeing a lot more of those types of collaborations on social media. Just this week I was like outfitting my avatar with Stella McCartney person glasses! Burberry, League of Legends, Pokemon... There are so many ways for brands to enter the metaverse. And it's interesting because people usually have a negative reaction “I don't want brands in my space”. But if it's a brand that you really like, you're totally going to enjoy it.

NFT and VR distribution, where is the value?

C. H. - There are new revenue streams for brands, and new opportunities for creatives. From crypto art to NFT, it’s the beginning of many possibilities. I just wrote about the collaboration between the auction house Philips and The Digitals to sell Mad Dog Jones art (link). A self replicating NFC, generating new entities and value for the collector, that's brilliant. It changes the concept of art collection totally. And it's all metaverse related!

C. H. - What's the revenue opportunity for you as a brand, right? What does it mean to have an all digital collection? For now it’s just a lack of information they just don't have. The NFC craze has accelerated some of that because they understood there's some money here. How do we get a piece of that? That's not always necessarily good, because I think they need to approach it very carefully. That's one of the things I help friends with is kind of how do you enter the space organically in a way that makes sense. Who do you partner with? It's not just about throwing the NFC out because you can. What do people really want right now?

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REPLICATOR by Mad Dog Jones

C. H. - The distribution model for VR is getting better and better as more and more headsets get sold and the content evolves with that. Distribution has always been the big question mark. Now how do you get more people to see this and appreciate it, we’re still trying to understand it. Whenever Facebook will launch Horizon to the mass market, that'll be an interesting moment, because everyone (and marketers) will want to get in. Artists like Navah Berg (link), a social VR creator, are spending a lot of time on virtual worlds such as Facebook Spaces, Oculus etc. They are already ready for the next phase. I mean, it's all about world building after all, understanding the possibilities of it. I combine my years in emerging tech, working deep inside these companies, and my strategic foresight training to help brands understand where we’re going. Where it is right now and where is the opportunity to scale.

Avatar Dimension : Mixed Reality capture in 2021

C. H. - Avatar Dimension is the only Microsoft Mixed Reality capture studio on the East Coast, in the D.C. area. We're very much focused on enterprise training. We do storytelling as well, especially when it comes to historical storytelling - with the Smithsonian i.e. We're close to New York and as head of as VP of Strategic Growth and Partnerships, my whole goal is to find those opportunities that are going to allow us to create interesting partnerships. Looking at smart growth for the studio, who can we partner with that is going to create a series or what are the things that are really going to kind of take us to that next level. More than that, it’s an important moment in our industry when the US government decides to work with Microsoft on a billion dollar contract (link). The government in defense has always been on the forefront of these technologies. I think it's a big signal to our industry.

C. H. - Going back to us, our volumetric capture technology was very tricky before - you had to learn a lot about the technology itself, the post-production... Now you put people in the studio, you shoot everything, and it's almost ready to go online. The pandemic has shown if anything that virtual production is here to stay. From television to cinema (THE MANDALORIAN…) a lot of productions need it. We even talked to people in the government that want to set up a virtual production studio. It's almost like democratizing visual effects (VFX). Tom Emrich said that about augmented reality. And you don't have to be Disney. You're going to be able to do a lot of amazing things, but you've got to get good equipment and it’s still expensive. But I do think volumetric is ready to be a complete and easy tool for production. Recently Balenciaga had that beautiful volumetric capture project (link) over 50 captures, one of the biggest projects we ever done. The more we work on these, the better they get and the more effective they're going to be. Why do I believe in it? Eventually we will move away from phones into glasses. Am I really going to want flat content in front of me? We need dimensions, volumes.

Discover the 2020 Air Force Global Futures Report VR Teaser

More with Cathy on her podcast Future of the Metaverse

medium.com/@CathyHackl

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