The first time Matthew Martin tried virtual reality, he was gripped. The managing director and co-founder of the Norwich-based creative agency Immersive Studios had visited the home of co-founder and technical director James Burrows in the late 2014 and tried VR experience Don’t Let Go.
This short game asks the player to hold down two computer keys in an empty classroom as a series of unsettling animations play out. Flies swarm, a dinosaur prowls the small room, and knives drop from the ceiling. However, it was the spider that got to Martin. When it crawled onto his virtual avatar’s arm, he could feel the sensation in real life. The experience ended when the spider jumped at the screen – Matt was impressed.
“The effect it had on me, feeling that this stuff was real when it clearly isn’t, that’s the thing that got me thinking, ‘Well, we can use this technology to do some really cool things’,” Martin tells us.
Immersive Studios creates virtual reality, augmented reality and 360-degree video content for a variety of companies and agencies, including training simulations for the oil and gas industry and the education sector, as well as experiences for brands like Hugo Boss, Yamaha, Mazda and Ikea. It has also filmed 360-degree video footage of everything from a Machine Head concert to a West Ham stadium tour, and created virtual tours for universities and the property sector.
Based at the Union Building in Norwich with 15 employees, the idea for Immersive Studios originated during discussions between Martin and Burrows.
“We didn’t want to create another digital [agency] or another creative agency, because Norwich has got quite a few… we wanted to do something different,” Martin explains.
The skills to succeed
Martin left school halfway through his A-levels to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star. However, he found he had a knack for sales and opened his own streetwear clothing store in his early twenties. Although the store closed after Superdry – then named Cult – opened a competing shop in Norwich, the experience was important for Martin.
“It laid the foundations for understanding how to deal with your own business, deal with customers, the sales side. When it’s your thing and you’ve got to make it a success, you really do work a lot harder,” Martin says.
Martin went on to work in radio as a media sales executive, as a publication manager for the B2B magazine Kitchen Journal and as a self-taught freelance graphic designer. While living in France, Martin met Peter Sibley, founder of virtual communications agency wtv., and helped him to establish Media Frontier, a boutique first language English agency operating in the Geneva area.
Martin was initially responsible for onboarding clients, project management and designing websites, apps, videos, animations and print designs alongside his team. The company was successful, generating over CHf 1 million per year in revenue at the time, he says.
“I always sort of see that as a very well-paid internship or apprenticeship” Martin says. “It just did me in good stead for setting up [Immersive Studios] – I knew what to do straight away and how to build a successful team and keep everybody motivated.”
Burrows had previously worked on a VR project for Mazda, while Martin had been working on “cutting edge digital technology” in Switzerland. Together, emboldened by the acquisition of VR company Oculus by Facebook for approximately $2 billion in March 2014 and assisted by £250,000 in start-up capital from a private investor, they took the plunge.
The rise of Immersive Studios
Martin moved back to England to establish the company, then named Immersive VR Ltd. Alongside Burrows and 3D modeller and animator Steve Bjorck, the company spent its first nine months in research and development. However, there was lots of stigma attached to VR at that time.
“You’d be speaking to people that often wouldn't have a clue what you’re talking about,” Martin says.
Immersive Studios didn’t have many references to draw on when starting out but were adamant that VR shouldn’t be treated as a gimmick.
“We’ve always maintained from the early days that we want to create experiences that really add value for the client so that they get a return on their investment and it’s not seen as throwaway content. For us, it was just about getting our heads together really and thinking ‘Okay, what would we like to be working on? What do we think would be really exciting? On the other hand, what’s gonna pay the bills?’” Martin laughs.
Still, the novelty of the immersive sector made it relatively easy to get their foot in the door, leading to their first big contract with manufacturing multinational Yamaha in 2016. They filmed famous drummer Steve Gadd in 360-degrees at Metropolis Studios in London, promoting a new drum kit he had co-designed with Yamaha. They then recreated Gadd’s setup at NAMM, an annual music trade show, down to the placement of his coffee cup and towel. Attendees could witness his performance “in person” through VR headsets positioned around the kit. Martin was delighted and maintains that Immersive Studios “still sell off the back of that project now.”
“Nothing like that had been done at NAAM before, so there was a lot of excitement around it at the show,” Martin says.
For Immersive Studios’ creative director Robin Fuller, part of the appeal of creating VR projects is the “pioneering spirit” of the work. Fuller, who comes from a film and animation background, joined the studio in 2017 and describes his first VR experience as “mind-blowing.”
“What you can do creatively in VR at the moment is very much in its infancy,” Fuller says.
When approaching a new project, such as a 4D driving experience produced for Mazda in collaboration with multiple different companies, Fuller says it’s important to understand the core of the idea.
“It just comes down to creative problem solving. You look at the tools that are available to you and think, ‘What are the technologies we’ve got? What are the different tools we’ve got and how can we combine them to get the best results?’”
For the Mazda project, this involved filming a driver on location in Iceland and France with cameras mounted around the car. However, their client was adamant that the experience should take place from the driver’s perspective, with a filmed driver as opposed to CGI. Since they couldn’t strap a camera to the driver’s head, the solution was to animate a CGI car that matched the real one and film a body double in a greenscreen location. The actor mimicked the original driver in a static car whilst members of the production team were “charging around with lights” to mimic the shadows cast by the original car.
“There was so many moving parts to that, it was a little bit ridiculous, but it came together really well,” Fuller says.
Virtual reality gaming
Fuller is also designing games for XIST, an offshoot company of Immersive Studios that focuses on multiplayer free-roam games in VR, alongside other Immersive staffers. Players can move around a large-scale space – for example, 13x6 metres for the action adventure game Primal Reign – and see each other represented by digital avatars, with the technology tracking their positions and even hand movements. XIST VR has also collaborated with Barclays, participating in the Game Technology Frenzy event held in Canary Wharf, London in January.
XIST plans to launch with a gaming focus, targeting locations like VR arcades, leisure centres and shopping centres, with support from the same private investor that gave Immersive Studios start-up capital. However, Martin also has ambitions for collaborative VR training simulations that would be developed for sectors like the oil and gas industry, firefighters and the military.
Martin and Fuller are particularly excited about XIST, the latest iteration of which Martin aims to launch in about a month. It represents a chance to work on their own IP and products, rather than solely relying on contracted work. Martin even has esports ambitions for one of their in-development games. Fuller described it as a team-based game with a futuristic setting, where players pass a ball around to score goals whilst shooting each other to fight for possession.
Looking forward, Martin is keen to maintain the quality of work being done by Immersive Studios.
“We’ve had challenging times,” he says. “It hasn’t always been upward growth the whole time. Financially, there’s been some difficult periods.”
He points to their first quarter of last year, October to December, as one such period for the company. The studio has also had to adapt to working from home due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, they’ve been “busier over the last few months than we’ve ever been historically at this time of year.”
“So many organisations have had to look at ways to adapt. How can they change what they’re doing or what they would normally do physically?” Martin says, pointing to the events industry in particular. “We’re delivering tools to them that are enabling them to continue – it’s not like we’re benefiting from the situation as such, it’s more we’re helping other companies to grow and survive.”
Although we’re all hoping for an end to the pandemic, Martin already has his eye on a bright future, particularly with XIST.
“If we could spend all day every day building video games as a company then sure, that’s definitely what we would do. That’s where XIST comes in... If we can sell enough systems, that will create enough recurring revenue to support the team just making the content for the systems and that’s where I’d love to get to with it. You’re building stuff for fun then.”
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