How did you discover your passion for interactive storytelling? Interactive storytelling wasn’t a “thing” when I was studying, but looking back, I can see it in the fabric of what was around me and what I was drawn to, from Choose Your Own Adventure books to board games, and, of course, console and computer games.
When I was taking a graphic design course, I remember receiving a brief to design a website—on paper—for the Disney Store. I came up with an idea that couldn’t have been any further from the other websites being designed at the time. It was an interactive user journey through the Toy Story bedroom. You could select a character that would leap to life off an animator’s drawing board and guide you into their story world, where you would meet other characters and be shown products to buy as you explored scenes inspired by the film. I never thought then that I would be creating interactive stories like this ten years later and was equally surprised to find that I was thinking this way, even back then!
At the time, the web was an experimental place. Talented, creative people were trying things out, pushing technology, merging and working across disciplines, and publishing directly onto the internet, as opposed to being mediated by broadcasters or publishers. I was drawn by the passion and energy of the people working in this emerging field and I was able to carve out a new hybrid role that didn’t exist anywhere else. We learned by trying, making mistakes and trying again. It was an exciting time to be a creator!
How does your background in animation help you design for immersive spaces? I’m not an animator anymore, but the learnings have stuck with me. You always think: What is the story, even if there is not going to be a story for the end user? You imagine the world and its rules. You imagine the protagonist and what their motivations would be, whether that’s a character or the user. I often imagine microinteractions and discrete user experience moments as scenes; it gives me a different perspective on why the icon or screen swipe is designed and behaves the way it does. Motion design caught up with this idea in more recent years by seeing the value of adopting animation principles, considering forces, gravity, acceleration, overshoot, secondary motion and material qualities, and understanding that they also convey meaning. Animation also taught me the value of timing, which can be translated into how to pace the delivery of an interactive experience—even a simple user interface can have life breathed into it with some good motion and pacing. Google’s Material Design is a great example of these principles being put into practice.
What kinds of opportunities does augmented reality (AR) present to brands? It brings a whole new dimension to brands—literally. Thinking of AR as a stand-alone spectacle is only one facet of its potential. AR’s real future will be an ever-present virtual world—an invisible twin laid over ours, which when activated, can bring buildings, inert signage and surfaces to life. It won’t be only one virtual reality; there will be many layered realities on top of the other, from utilities and wayfinding to entertainment and experiential branded layers that can be switched. They will be persistent and evolve over time. They will react, respond and influence our interactions within our environment—just look at how mobile devices have irrevocably altered people’s habits.
What were the greatest challenges of developing BBC’s Civilisations AR app, which enables users to virtually explore cultural artifacts from museums and galleries? When I began this project, I didn’t want to end up with a fancy 3-D object viewer. I wanted to give these virtual artifacts a sense of presence. I wanted to evoke wonder. Elevating a 3-D scanned object and giving it gravitas was a challenge. We aimed to be respectful while enabling viewers to interact with these artifacts in ways they normally wouldn’t be able to. Playing with them, photographing them amongst your belongings and uncovering their stories as you explored them more closely with our X-ray or restore tool brought a new dimension to these otherwise inanimate objects.
There was also a need to provide a lot of information, but I didn’t want to use annotations or long copy. I decided that users should discover the object layer by layer. Users first approach the object and admire it artistically. We then introduce its story with audio, while users are enjoying the object. If they’re still curious for more, they can discover further information with purposeful interaction. Essentially, this way of seeing and doing in AR became a foundation for how we’ve approached many of our experiential projects since this project.
What emerging technologies and innovations will have the biggest impact on how you design in the next few years? The fast pace at which AR advances will continue to impact the ways I approach my work. Applications of artificial intelligence technology are beginning to have more of an influence on my projects; for instance, using computer vision to better understand what is in an environment, and being able to use that to affect your virtual experience.
Whose work do you look toward for inspiration? I look for inspiration everywhere. I have to be a bit of a chameleon as my projects vary wildly, from working out how to tell the story of the big bang in AR to imagining 40-foot American footballers clambering out of a stadium. I couldn’t pin it down to any individual or studio—I admire many! But, some recurring inspirations seem to be all things sci-fi; anime, particularly Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki; and games.
What advice would you give to someone just entering the profession? Think deeper about the choices you make and how a style can be rationalized back to a project’s aims. Ask yourself: Does the story need this? Does it support the brand? What feeling does it evoke beyond the visual aesthetic? Above all, be curious. Look outside your area of expertise and experiment. The only thing that stays the same in the interactive space is change.
What has been the most memorable immersive experience you’ve seen recently? Like most of us today, I’m indoors and working at home. I’m busy on pitches and running a team, so I have had little time to indulge. But the best and most immersive experience is watching my one-year-old discover the world with such excitement and enthusiasm.