Tell us about your interactive experiential design firm ARCADE. What led you to pivot from architectural design to creating immersive interactive experiences, and what kinds of insights from the world of architecture have you carried over into your new practice? ARCADE is a digital experience practice specializing in XR and AI technologies, which we use to reimagine audience engagement across a variety of sectors, including branding and marketing, sports and entertainment, and arts and culture. ARCADE has its roots in the late ’90s, when I met one of my cofounders at architectural school just at the time when CAD was emerging into the mainstream and Pixar was following up on the huge success of the first Toy Story film. We became fascinated by the new set of 3-D tools that was becoming accessible and the possibilities that these afforded us, especially how they were changing the way we communicated design through multiple media channels.
At the end of our masters’ degrees, it felt natural to begin our first business FUSE, a pioneering digital agency that focused on exploring all of these emerging 3-D and web technologies—including a lot of Flash. We applied them using the design rigor that had been instilled in us at architecture school. FUSE grew and was acquired, and at the end of this journey, we felt the need to break free from the commoditization of straight digital design and build. This coincided with the emergence of high-quality, mass-accessible mobile AR in 2016, and we realized the obvious potential of this technology as a new way to combine our two passions: digital experience and physical space. Thus, ARCADE was born with immersive technology at its heart and a powerful founding philosophy of “connecting people to place through play.”
How did you learn the skills necessary to create digital immersive experiences? Architectural training developed our rigorous design skills. We practiced and honed an approach rooted in a critical response to a site and centered on a user’s needs, often encompassing a wider narrative. Translating these to digital design proved to be quite straightforward, though learning the tools centered on code and animation took a lot of patience! Now with ARCADE, those site-, user- and narrative-design elements are so important when designing digital experiences that we often find ourselves recalling a lot of our architectural training and passing some of this wisdom onto the team. The soft skills we developed during our first digital agency days have proved integral to helping clients navigate the emerging world of immersive technology. The hard skills of coding and working with 3-D tooling are something you just have to keep on top of and practice every day, never forgetting that there is always something new to learn and always focusing on critical problem solving.
ARCADE’s philosophy is that immersive technology must be used to create meaningful connections between users and spaces, places or objects around them. What’s one of your projects that exemplifies this philosophy, and how did you use immersive tech to facilitate connection? Our Keeper of Paintings project at the National Gallery of London is a shining example of how we use technology to connect people to place through play. It’s also an example of a real business problem being solved by the power of XR and AI technologies: the National Gallery had struggled to make itself a visitor destination for families with young children. We set about changing that by designing and developing a free mobile-based experience that uses AR technology to encourage children to explore the gallery and learn about its paintings. Young gallery visitors are asked to help guide a fictitious character, the Keeper of Paintings to find a lost Palette of Perception—a magical object with special gems that gives them “powers”—to engage with the paintings digitally. As they move through the gallery responding to the app’s story, children discover a new digital world where they can solve puzzles, find hidden secrets and collect the gems connected to the paintings. Using AI and computer-vision techniques, the app can instantly recognize the paintings. Not only does this provide a smooth, engaging user experience, it also frees up the kids to choose any room in which to continue their quest, giving them agency and control of their adventure. Thus, the connection is made between children and their immediate physical surroundings in a magical, playful way!
As with most emerging technology, there’s always a push to use it before we understand what its best applications are. How do you imbue your digital experiences with narrative design, and why do you think it’s important to do so? The inclusion of some level of narrative is critical to engaging audiences over longer periods of time, maintaining deeper and more meaningful connections between people and the places they inhabit. In some cases, the end user may not always be in the situation to engage with a long-form adventure, but there is always a need for some level of storytelling to help them accept new technologies and experiences. We find that narratives of all complexities can be used as a vehicle to deliver a successful immersive experience. Usually, we deliver the narrative in ways that the user is already at ease with—chat interfaces, for example, where children are comfortable using simple chat bubbles to drive through an experience. This familiarity enables us to deliver XR experiences within a user-accepted framework.
Now that mobile devices have become entrenched in our daily lives and overlaid everything, how can we enhance real-time experiences through creative 3-D design to help reaffirm our connections to physical space and the natural world? Mobile-driven XR experiences have now become the norm and are something people are so much more familiar with than they were five years ago. Even the acceptance of the humble QR code means that a web-driven AR experience is barely a camera button away. Mobile is still a stepping stone to full immersive experiences, as hinted at by the advent of spatial computing and the mass availability of XR headsets. Mobile AR still has the disconnect between the device and the user, and it is still a screen—or a portal to a digitally enhanced world. It’s important for us to understand that wider role of the mobile device, and even to design elements of experiences that do not require the mobile at all. Try holding your device up for more than a minute—arm ache kicks in quite quickly!
AR is an extremely powerful way to connect people to place, but it needs to be used sparingly. In all our projects, we keep our focus on fostering interaction between the user, the place they’re in and they people they’re with.
What tools do you find indispensable in your current practice, and what upcoming technologies are you keeping an eye on that might impact how you design in the next few years? We’re a tech-agnostic practice and use multiple stacks across web and game engines, but the pipeline for a lot of our work is centered on Unity, a brilliant cross-device authoring and publishing platform for native apps. It lets us really focus our attention on the visual and interactive quality of our digital experiences. Unity is indispensable to our development team, as is Blender and Substance to our design teams, who use these to model, texture and animate the high-quality, game-ready 3-D content required by most of our experiences.
Looking toward the future, I think the coming reality of spatial computing is very exciting, but it is a pragmatic move beyond our current 2-D screens and nothing more. Once this move has happened, the real fun will be in using digital content in our 3-D environments to tell valid stories and give people meaningful experiences. Spatial computing is a new medium in the same way that the smartphone was, and it might be equally disruptive. But, as with any new medium, there will be good things and some rubbish things!
We pride ourselves in making sure that experiences we design within spatial will be rooted in the reality that the user finds themselves in, whether that be a pragmatic response to the environment around them or a narrative response to the user and their lived experiences.
When it comes to design, whose work do you love and look toward for inspiration? I am inspired by an awful lot of things, many of which are not to do with the industry I work in! Years ago when traveling, I packed one book with me: Inside Architecture, a translated short book by the Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti, one of the preeminent critical voices of 20th-century architecture and wider at. It had a lot of big words in it and was far too academic for me, but I persevered and took from that the following: any form of creative work must have measurable and accountable roots in something other than the form of expression itself. So, for example, a building is nothing and means nothing unless it is formed from a response to the site in which is being built—whether a physical or geological response, or a response to its function, or a response by the end user or community it is serving. A building could be the most high-tech, up-to-date structure, but it is meaningless without some kind of narrative. This has extended to my own work, where I have always sought to ensure that projects have a foundation in something other than a wow factor.
Outside of work, I’m into all sorts of things that involve making, but it’s often about telling a story. For example, I have a telescope that I use for a bit of amateur astrophotography every now and then. I often use it with my kids, where the most fun is getting them to understand the narrative of space and giving them a sense of belonging. Also—and cheesily—I am always inspired by my kids and my wife; I’m super lucky to have a family who are inspiring and demanding in equal measure!
Do you have any advice for interactive designers starting out in the field today? Interactive design is a real mix of disciplines. At ARCADE, we demand both a tech and design understanding, so we often look for people with a broad set of skills, alongside those with good basic soft skills and a team-driven work ethic. To those just stepping out of education and into the exciting world of interactive design—let curiosity get the better of you! Learn as many tools as you can. If you are a developer, learn a bit of 3-D modeling. If you are a designer, then don’t be scared of trying to code. In this quickly changing world of emerging technologies, it’s not necessarily about what you know—but more about your attitude to learning and demonstrating a steep learning curve. These are the skills that we should prize above all else. ca