Pushing AR Forward with the Obamas

December 14, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Nexus Studios’ augmented reality experience for the White House is a big step forward.

We are coming towards the end of a US presidency that’s been almost universally admired by the creative and communications industries. Barack Obama’s administration has been the techiest ever and (drone killings aside) much of that technology has been used for good. The White House quietly recruited the finest minds in tech from places like Google and Facebook and used their big brains to improve government services and solve American citizens’ problems.

The latest example of the Obama team’s technophilia comes in the form of an augmented reality experience called 1600.

Created by Nexus Studios’ innovative Interactive Arts division and featuring animation and design from Nexus Studios director Jack Cunningham, the free mobile app allows the public to explore the White House. The experience tracks a stunningly intricate AR animation off a one-dollar bill and tells the story of one year in the administration.

We spoke to Luke Ritchie, Head of Interactive arts at Nexus Studios, about why this project is such an important moment in the timeline of AR.

The Beak Street Bugle: How did the White House approach you?
Luke Ritchie:
We’ve been doing a fair number of AR and VR projects in the last few years and one that caught notable attention at the White House was The New Yorker, which was an AR experience we did with Christoph Niemann, quite a well-known illustrator who does covers for them. We got to work with him on the innovation issue in May. It’s a cute little experience that starts off in 2D, which is amazing, and then breaks into 3D.

The White House had seen that experience through gave us a phone call to see if we would be interested in working on developing an AR experience for them.


BSB: What was the brief?
LR:
To begin with it was pretty loose. They were very interested in a message about the White House’s role in democracy.

President Obama and his administration, and Michelle Obama, had been working very hard to try and dispel myths about the building itself.  They’ve done lots of interesting things, from opening up rooms that were previously closed, inviting everyone to have a festival on the lawn of the White House for South By South Lawn. You could Google Street View through all the rooms and stuff.

The key word that went around was transparency. The hope for the project was to enlighten people about what goes on there.

I guess there was always an educational angle right from the start, but it was always to be bathed in a creative experience first. It was meant to captivate you visually and then take you on a journey and if you walked away learning something from it then that would be an added benefit.


BSB: How did it develop from there?
LR:
It didn’t begin on a dollar note. We did explore doing something on the tour itself. We talked about using the building façade as a marker to scan on, so you could stand outside the building and then you could see inside it.

Then as the project grew there was a requirement for it to reach more people, and that’s when we started trying to think what everybody has that doesn’t cost them anything to buy and is fully accessible by most Americans. And we landed on a dollar bill.

It was actually a 20-dollar bill to begin with because the White House is on the 20-dollar bill. As visual storytellers we had the idea of the White House emerging out of the bill, which would have been really great, but it was fairly pointed out that a lot more people have access to a dollar bill.


BSB: How do you think it compares to other AR experiences out there?
LR:
I think in general it’s still early days in AR. We had an opportunity to experience AR a few years ago, but the problems back then were we didn’t have the tracking potential back then, or camera lenses, or software, and we definitely didn’t have the power that we have in a mobiles now. Most people didn’t even know what a game engine was five years ago. So it was a different place.

Remember QR codes and the importance of the contrast and definition? AR has a much more magical ability now. Lots of things can be markers that never could be before. That is a real opening point in terms of how advertisers may decide to use it because there’s a lot more freedom there.

There’s a lot of pressure coming into a job like this with the amount of people that are going to see it. It does need to look as good as it can within the limitations. So I’m pleased with some of the shaders we’ve built and the optimisation to get as many characters animating and moving as possible. I think we’ve made some real advances there.

People from a technical background are surprised by the quality of the render. They didn’t realise we could do things like that now. We worked extremely hard to make sure that was the case.

The other bit is, I think, still early stages but we are getting into narrative storytelling in AR. We’ll see a lot more of it if we all end up wearing headsets [like the Microsoft HoloLens]. You know that scene in Her where the character steps out of the wall? You have things like that because you can use the physical room you’re inside. And I hope that the White House is an interesting step in that direction.

Even though it’s loose enough for you to navigate around and explore, it’s a year in the White House and there are events unfolding, so it has a structure to it and we do encourage you to keep looking, keep exploring, do it again. See if you found all the presidents or not, open the Oval Office or touch the roof of the White House. There are elements in there for exploration.

Hopefully it stands as a benchmark for other AR projects that can come. And I genuinely think it can. I know that once I introduce it to a lot of people they always talk to me about how shit the last experience they saw was.

BSB: What were the biggest challenges?
LR:
The technical challenges are always there the minute you want to try and push the boundaries. If I’m building for the newest iPad it’s a lot easier, but if I’m building it for more or less everyone in America to access it without a problem, then I have to work to older devices too. It needs to look as amazing on an iPhone 7 as it does on an iPhone 5.

The pressure to create something good for that kind of a stage was extremely important. You know it needs to be good.

We have a lot of love for Obama and his administration and I think there was a pressure of making sure that it represented him well and this notion of transparency that they were working on. We obviously didn’t anticipate the future, so it ended up having a bit more relevance.

One thing we did was build a pause week into the schedule so everyone stopped and we reassessed and talked about whether we were happy with it, where it was at that point and what changes we might want to make in the remaining four weeks of the job.

That was vital because I think we’d managed to answer a lot of what the White House needed but we hadn’t managed to get the charm and sense of humour into it yet.

Another thing we did that was really important was by the end of the first week we had the app built. It was a crude, square, White-House-looking building with a few bouncy 2D characters in it. What that allowed everyone to do was to allow all the stakeholders on the job to have the app and then week-by-week we all get to review it in the app, not on 36-inch screens in the studio.

I thought that was brilliant because it allowed everyone to have a go in the evening in their kitchen, have a think and in the morning they might come back with more thoughts.


BSB: What have people’s reactions been like?
LR:
You never know, but we’d hoped it would have a relatively large release because the White House were going to talk about it. I think the hopes outside of that were to do with mainstream people trying it out and learning a bit about AR.

We’ve seen teachers in classrooms showing their kids. The majority of people don’t know where the Oval Office is. Maybe this project, if it is seen by millions, would almost guarantee that everyone knows that at least. And from the WHHA’s point of view that would be a huge thing.

It’s obviously been picked up a lot by people from Sky News in the UK to Jimmy Fallon in the US. That’s been great. I don’t think we could have hoped for a better result.


BSB: What has this project taught you about the direction interactive technology is moving in?
LR:
I recently saw an article which I’m sure there will be a few of, which is all about how 2016 was meant to be the year of VR, but it was actually the year of AR. That rang very true.

AR is much more social and it doesn’t require any expensive hardware. There are big implications there for why it can be so useful for messaging.

I’m a big fan of the next phase, which is much more about computer vision and [the technology] understanding our environment. If you look at the concept art on the Microsoft Hololens website, I think that begins to get you excited about what the potential is. I can absolutely see the storytelling possibilities for us.

That will be interesting. Right now I still think it’s much more interesting how that’s relevant to the mobile. Google Tango is an amazing bit of kit that’s now in the Lenovo phone. And that allows us to remove the marker [the dollar bill in 1600’s case], so I can look around the room and it understands what a person is because it can track the skeleton. It understands what a door, wall or table is.

We talk a lot about how it’s important that things like Pokemon Go happened because they raise everyone’s interest and investment into an area. So you can guarantee that just from that one hit there’ll be ten more coming.

When I asked the White House why AR, the answer was because they’d tried everything else but didn’t know how to access millions of people with low to no investment. I don’t think it’s gimmicky. I think good AR experiences have a place because they don’t require any investment from the user. Right now if everyone’s getting close to Christmas and thinking ‘Oh my God. Am I going to spend 1,500 quid on a VR setup?’

This is an easy way to reach a lot of people and it still has the emerging technology feel. It still is exciting. It’s not like everyone has seen AR. It’s still in its infancy and it comes with that excitement.

I’m pitching to everyone but I’d love to do a graphic novel. You could stare at the page, follow a 2D story, when you touch it it animates or comes to life and you watch it. Or maybe your character breaks out into 3D, opens the book and turns the page for you and you follow them to the next page. There are some really unique opportunities in that space for storytelling. A lot of AR has been pointing it at this thing, seeing a 3D thing appear and that’s it. Now we’re getting into the area where I can delve deeper; I can explore something or touch on something to open another window and dive into that and have another experience.

I think that gets away from it being gimmicky at that point because whatever you want to do you can do. That’s the point. Everything is interactive and you can engage with whatever you want.

High Ten: 2016’s Best Christmas Ads

December 5, 2016 / High Five

By Alex Reeves

Watch this lot and feel the seasonal spirit fill you up.

Traditions are so quickly established these days. This whole Christmas commercial phenomenon wasn’t a thing ten years ago. Now it’s a rabid frenzy of consumerist propaganda. Two years ago we were just doing a regular monthly High Five in December, but last year we decided there was just too much good stuff to fit in and now that’s an annual event. Have a watch and see if you agree with our top ten. And if you want to hear more on the subject tomorrow, register for FOCUS for free and come to hear our panel of expert Christmas commercial makers talk about it. 

Brand: Aldi
Title:  Kevin the Carrot
Production Companies: Psyop, Stink
Directors: Todd Mueller, Kylie Matulick
Production Company Producer: Alicia Farren
Director of Photography: Richard Mott
Ad Agency: McCann Manchester
Creative Directors: Dave Price, Neil Lancaster, Rob Doubal
Creatives: Clive Davis, Andy Fenton, Dean Webb
Agency Producer: Lucy Moore
Editing Company:  Marshall Street Editors
Editor: John Mayes

Aldi – Kevin the Carrot

Who’d have imagined a carrot could be so adorable? Christmas is a time for all sorts of anthropomorphic heartstring tugging and sometimes it can be a bit of a stretch, but the quality of Psyop’s animation here really does the trick. We’ve all seen Night Before Christmas ideas like this before, rhyming couplets abounding, but this one is just so sweet and the little comic touches are so spot-on that it doesn’t matter.

 

Brand: Amazon
Title: Vicar and Imam
Production Company: HLA
Director: Simon Ratigan
Production Company Producer: Mike Wells
Director of Photography: Ian Murray
Ad Agency: Joint
Creatives: Steve Williams, Adrian Lim
Agency Producer: Claudio Gorini
Editing Company: The Quarry
Editor: Bruce Townsend
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designers: Jon Clarke, Phil Bolland
Post Production Company: The Mill

Amazon – Vicar and Imam

After a year in which humanity has demonstrated itself to be more divided than we thought, it’s heartening to think that huge, transnational megacorporations like Amazon want us all to put our differences aside and focus on the things that unite us – in this case, the inevitable descent into decrepitude and pain that comes with age. Cynicism aside, it’s great to see a Muslim character depicted in such a loving way and in such a sweet story. With hate crimes on the rise, brands with marketing budgets as big as Amazon’s can make a difference in the direction of acceptance and unity.

 

Brand: Apple
Title: Frankie’s Holiday
Production Company: Park Pictures
Director: Lance Acord
Ad Agency: TBWA\Media Arts Lab

Apple – Frankie’s Holiday

In wake of Brexit and Trump, Apple seem to be feeling just as unsettled by the world as Amazon are. Their message of festive togetherness and acceptance is the same, but put across in a completely different way. This one’s trying its hardest to make you cry. At two minutes, the pacing is just slow enough to squeeze emotion out of each moment.The timing is powerful. It’s a heartwarming little film and the product’s role in it is just about acceptable.

 

Brand: Burberry
Title: The Tale of Thomas Burberry
Production Company: Black Label Productions
Director: Asif Kapadia
Production Company Producer: Jules Fennell
Director of Photography: Dion Beebe
Creative Director: Christopher Bailey
Editing Company: Intermission
Editor: Johnny Rayner
Music Company: Pusher
Post Production Company: The Mill

Burberry – The Tale of Thomas Burberry

There’s nothing explicitly Christmassy about this film, but it somehow fits in with the general seasonal vibe so we’ve included it here. It’s stunning. No surprises there, considering the ridiculous cast and star director Asif Kapadia. Making a film that feels like the trailer for an epic period drama is an ambitious idea and it could have ended up a naff waste of money. Obviously it didn’t. It’s amazing.

 

Brand: Heathrow
Title: Coming Home for Christmas
Production Company: Outsider
Director: Dom&Nic
Production Company Producer: John Madsen
Director of Photography: Alex Barber
Ad Agency: Havas
Creative Director: Ben Mooge
Creatives: Daniel Bolton, Barnaby Packham
Agency Producer: Kiri Carch
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: Ed Cheesman
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designer: Anthony Moore
Post Production Company: The Mill

Heathrow – Coming Home for Christmas

Another weepy one, anyone? Well, you’ve got to have a few otherwise it wouldn’t feel like Christmas. Anyway, it’s happy tears this time round. True to form, Dom&Nic have told a very sweet story here, full of little moments that we can all recognise. And there’s something very festive about airports, even if they’re usually just soulless corporate landing pads. It probably has something to do with Love, Actually.

 

Brand: H&M
Title: Come Together
Production Companies: The Directors Bureau, Riff Raff
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company Producer: Julie Sawyer
Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Ad Agency: adam&eveDDB
Creative Directors: Till Diestel, Tim Vance, Paul Knott
Agency Producer: Lucie Georgeson
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: Joe Guest
Music Supervisors: Randall Poster, Abi Leland
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designer: Anthony Moore
Post Production Company: The Mill

H&M – Come Together

Practically everyone is advertising is a Wes Anderson fan. So getting to see a little festive slice of Wes-land two years since his last film is a Christmas present in itself. Props to H&M. They’ve obviously spent a lot of money on this film in order to associate themselves with the aura of cool the director has around him. There’s not much in the way of plot, but it’s just so warm and Christmassy and stylish and quirky and exactly like a scene from a Wes Anderson Christmas movie. We’re so glad it exists.

 

Brand: John Lewis
Title: Buster the Boxer
Production Company: Blink
Director: Dougal Wilson
Production Company Producer: Nick Goldsmith
Director of Photography: Joost Van Gelder
Ad Agency: adam&eveDDB
Creative Directors: Richard Brim, Ben Tollett
Creatives: Ben Stilitz, Colin Booth
Agency Producer: Panos Louca
Editing Company: Final Cut
Editor: Rick Russell
Music Company: Leland Music
Music Supervisors: Abi Leland, Ed Bailie
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designer: Anthony Moore
Post Production Company: MPC

John Lewis – Buster the Boxer

Several years on from the first big John Lewis Yuletide extravaganza, the department store are still the most anticipated player in the Christmas commercial game. Expectations were high, adam&eveDDB suggested that they’d be eschewing the ‘sadvertising’ approach this year and they delivered with a film that walks the delicate line between moving and silly. It’s warm, relatable and funny and doesn’t lay any heavy moral message on us at the end, which is refreshing.

 

Brand: Marks & Spencer
Title: Christmas With Love
Production Company: Smuggler
Director: Tom Hooper
Production Company Producer: Molly Pope
Director of Photography: Justin Brown
Ad Agency: RKCR/Y&R
Creative Directors: Jon Burley, Danielle Sandler
Creatives: Alice Burton, Psembi Kinstan
Agency Producer: Danielle Sandler
Editing Company: The Quarry
Editor: Paul Watts
Music Company: Native
Sound Company: Wave
Sound Designer: Parv Thind
Post Production Company: The Mill

Marks & Spencer – Christmas With Love

The strategy here seems to be to make the most Christmassy film ever. They’ve just thrown it all in there: reindeer, snow, cosy fireplaces, Santa Claus, helicopters... It’s impossible to resist the festive spirit. Focusing on the great woman behind Father Christmas was a brilliant choice too. It’s about time she got the respect she deserves. With Tom Hooper directing the whole thing feels classy and cinematic, a real treat for those snuggled up in front of the TV this winter.

 

Brand: McDonald’s
Title: Juliette the Doll
Production Company: Independent
Director: Gary Freedman
Production Company Producer: Jason Kemp
Director of Photography: Jan Velicky
Ad Agency: Leo Burnett
Creative Directors: Pete Heyes, Matt Lee
Creatives: Phillip Meyler, Darren Keff
Agency Producer: Lou Pegg
Editing Company: The Play Room
Editor: Adam Spivey
Music Company: Woodwork Music
Sound Company: 750mph
Sound Designer: Sam Robson
Post Production Company: MPC

McDonald’s – Juliette the Doll

McDonald’s doesn’t have a big claim on Christmas tradition. Department stores and supermarkets have genuinely important roles to play in putting together a good Christmas, but burgers and fries are very much optional extras. This film cleverly makes McDonald’s feel like a naturally festive place though, by tapping up the sense of togetherness the brand has – it’s a place where people of all classes, creeds and backgrounds come together to eat in warmth and convenience. Throw in a heartwarming story about a neglected toy and you’ve got a festive joy for all the family.

 

Brand: Waitrose
Title: Coming Home
Production Company: Rogue Films
Director: Sam Brown
Production Company Producer: James Howland
Ad Agency: adam&eveDDB
Creative Directors: Ben Tollett, Richard Brim
Creatives: John Long, Matt Gay
Agency Producer: Jack Bayley
Editing Company: Trim
Editor: Paul Hardcastle
Music Company: Leland Music
Music Supervisors: Abi Leland, Ed Bailie
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designers: Jon Clarke, Anthony Moore
Post Production Company: The Mill

Waitrose – Coming Home

This film feels exactly like a Christmas card bought from Waitrose. Classy, wholesome and refined, it’s so incredibly on brand. On the anthropomorphic scale, birds are a hard one to get right. They aren’t the most emotional of animals, but Sam Brown’s deft storytelling touch, combined with the expert virtual animal creation skills of The Mill, has managed to make us feel something about this little robin as he makes his perilous journey home.