We bring you a series of interviews with the 10 companies accepted into Startupbootcamp’s Sports & EventTech cohort.
In this edition we talked to the CEO of Humense Scott O’Brien.
Before I started recording you brought up the genesis of how Humense goes back almost two decades.
What your company is developing, are we ready to adopt it? Or is there going to be a key inflection point like 5G accessibility that really will drive adoption?
Scott O’Brien: “To be honest with you it happened 10 years ago, and one thing is for the technology to show some levels of capability, and of course 10 years ago it was a different level but still an adoptable level. With 5G that’s just heavy reinforcement and a commercial driver because Telcos and handset companies have been in a world of pain in the last 10 quarters, sales have dropped 10 quarters in a row, so they need something new and juicy for people to hook on to.
“Eight to nine years ago, as an example, I worked with Michael Bay on his movie (Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon) and we were asked to come up with a ground-breaking app solution (Transformers 3: Defend the Earth) to marry up these new smartphones that interacts with the promotional posters of the movie. Within days of the app being released, we had multiple million downloads. In a large sense, that was Hollywood’s first AR success story, preceding Pokemon Go. The app was a massive success, we won awards for how beautiful it was but it also facilitated millions of movie tickets being sold.
“And you know, what’s crazy? A lot of the stuff done with these early iPhone and smartphone applications were sort of a one-off, done for the purpose of doing something creative. No long term strategic plan was mapped. Multiple millions of people passionately using the app, engagement times like no other app achieved at the time and that user database could have then been used for the next sequel of the movie. But it wasn’t. That game could have been used for the next sequel of the movie. But it wasn’t. That game could have monetised and made more money than the movie but the way brains worked back then is that the movies make the most money. Roll on five years later, Pokemon Go, a very simple, basic form of augmented reality is the highest revenue generating entertainment property in the world.”
What do you think of the fact that a basic AR game having that level of popularity in the last few years compared to what you were producing and working on years before?
SO: “Between 2010 and 2013 augmented reality got its footing through the agency and advertising space, and then it was around 2015 to 2018 a lot of augmented reality companies started to think, ‘okay, we’ve had enough of being sort of picked out by agencies as a gimmick, now we’ll look to more enterprise use and functional use cases.’
“So that was part of a turning point for the AR industry, and in a sense, the VR industry. But to this point, now in the last three, four years, VR companies regularly making millions of dollars of revenue per month off eyewear not just mobile, so there is solid business in the VR world and to back up the Pokemon GO phenomenon, that game isn’t a one-year one hit wonder, last year in 2019 that game derived more revenue than 2016 when it was the number one entertainment revenue across all sectors, so it hasn’t gone away.”
This is what I have struggled to grapple with AR and VR with sports, is that there’s a perception that it’s the next year it will be the year it breaks through, even though it’s something that’s already been here for years and years.
SO: “A lot of what we’re doing with Humense to 3-D reconstruct dynamic players as they run around the field, not just the players but the ball as well, is orders of magnitude different from previous offers to consumers including NextVR – which was recently bought by Apple. What it all comes down to for us and what it comes down to in the marketing world, and in personal relationships, is signal versus noise.
“The more you can eradicate noise and have a pure signal, the better your product, the better your relationships. So it’s a really sort of simple, interesting formula, which relates to the tech vetting that should have happened is a signal versus noise. Unfortunately, billions of dollars went into noise in early VR, it went into products with good intentions, but they were misrepresented. For example, one of the biggest problems in this industry has been companies claiming virtual reality when what they’re delivering is 360 video. These are maybe fighting words but it’s basic neuroscience, 360 video is not true VR and I would classify it as more like a warped 2-D panorama. Not something that the brain enjoys over extended periods of time like 60 to 90 minute sports events.
“The punchline to this is that we need to deliver spatial experience like sport in a spatial way, not in a bubble, not in a 360 video experience which is like putting your head inside a beach ball and the inner surface of the beach ball is like your cinema screen. To be honest, that’s bullshit, and the brain doesn’t really like it.
“The reason why in business we’ve spent a trillion dollars a year flying, before COIVD-19 anyway, to have face to face meetings, handshake conversations because there’s that saying ‘I’ve got to look at them in the whites of the eyes to know I can trust them.’ There’s a reason for that, the brain craves spatial data. It’s like when people want to watch cricket or AFL they know they’re gonna get a more rewarding experience at the game because even though they’re limited to one seat they can dictate where their eyes zoom in and out from and around. So whereas when we’re watching it on TV, we’re dictated by 20 cameras where directors are choosing where to zoom and when not to.
“In that sense it might sound harsh but the 2-D screen world and the 360 bubble world is alien. It’s alien to the brain because what we’re asking the brain to do is sort of unpack that flattened view of the world and cognitively extrapolate what that world would be if you got to see that in 3-D. This is what we’ve accepted by watching TV for 70 years, as humans. What we’re doing is we’re asking the brain to work a bit. We’re asking the brain to see that 2-D image, work hard , subconsciously, to imagine what is that 3-D reconstruction.
“So what we’re doing at Humense is saying, screw that 3-D reconstruction effort and let’s give the viewer that 3-D construction, that spatial data that the brain craves so then the brain doesn’t have to do the cognitive work to subconsciously unpack that 2-D flat image. So whilst we’ve been doing it all our lives, it’s still an alien perspective of the same, whether that’s for watching sport, or for a business meeting, the brain prefers spatial data.”
It’s no coincidence there’s been a lack of wide scale VR adoption in sport, partially because people don’t even enjoy the experience.
SO: “VR sports has really not been distributed or made available to this day on a public platform. What has been made available is 360 video. I was on the phone recently for an hour with a well-known rugby league commentator in Australia and what came through is the line that I’m used to hearing. ‘Yeah, I’ve seen it before. Didn’t get really excited. It didn’t take off.’ So what is unfortunate is that the broad brush is covering the spatial delivery of sports and 360, they’re not the same, they’re different neural and psychological activations.
“Business model wise there’s so much difference in what’s possible and the reason some company execs got into this false naming of companies as VR so they could do a quick flip. Good luck to them but it muddied the waters to layman’s understanding of what is actually really VR. So real VR in sports has not been done yet. One of our biggest challenges is to re-educate people – and it’s been like a typical magazine headline, ‘you’re doing it wrong. ‘If you think that’s VR, you’re doing it wrong!’ We’re gonna re-educate you, and in all due respect, you’ve been told the wrong thing. This is how real VR in sports is.
“For 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to rub shoulders with the people that invented and laid initial foundations for AR/VR, a key guy being Professor Mark Billinghurst who is based in Adelaide and Auckland, through to the co-founder of my own initial AR company Paul Kouppas who is a phenomenal talent, led one of the most amazing technology deliveries in AR and now he’s working with the Unity game engine.
“Over the last 10 years I’ve had so much user experience and feedback in some senses relating to sport and/or something that closely relates to how we would deliver sport in AR/VR, I’m talking over a hundred projects. The normal IT world has a thing called Moore’s law which is doubling your capability halving your costs, more or less every 18 months. The half-life of AR/VR is in around three to six months. It moves fast, and then people say ‘oh, you know, when it settles down a bit, we’ll hop on.’ Well that hasn’t happened for five to 10 years but the commercial adoption is gonna happen big time. You look at things like Pokemon GO and various other things, it’s already happening now.
“Entering AR/VR, the analogy is almost like a Mad Max stunt job, you’ve got to be sprinting and to jump onto that moving train. It’s not something where the train is going to stop for you like the normal IT world and then hop on and get to the next station. That ain’t going to happen. The trains moving as it passes by the station, you’ve got to sprint and jump on. And with that there inevitably is mistakes in the user experience and the biggest mistake is that 90 per cent plus of practitioners in AR/VR overlook the psychology.
“So in user experience assessments, we’ve put Australian representative players in the headset, world champ boxers, TV and sports broadcasters, veterans of sports broadcasting and one of the interesting anecdotes out of all that is sports veteran sports broadcasters. When we send them the 2-D, so called mirror of what a person sees in VR, so they can sort of see what VR experiences like and they say, ‘the resolution is a bit poor, you’ve got a bit of work to do there but it looks interesting, it looks fun, we’ll come over and have a look.’ And that is from seeing the 3-D reconstruction squashed to 2-D image, and to be honest with you, it’s a bit like if all your friends were squashed flat like a cardboard cut-out and how weird would that be? But thankfully your friends have volume and you have these small depth cues and how to read their faces or their behaviour, and in sport read their gestures to anticipate things. So when we squash our product flat in order to transmit it to give people some idea, some taster, we’re not doing it justice. It’s a bit like teaching people how to fly by driving a car.
“There’s that riddle with it, so the sports broadcasters are a bit prejudiced before they put the heads in the headset. They put their heads in the headset and it’s like the old trick when you’re a kid and your kindergarten teacher waives their hand across the face to go from happy to sad and sad to happy. It’s just this transformation across the face and it’s like nothing they’ve seen before, they’ve had that moment and the words that come invariably out of their mouth is, ‘this will change everything’.”
The opportunities are enormous to guide and demonstrate this to people.
SO: “There’s been a range of people taking a look at it like the CEO of Telstra Broadcast Services, they’re well aware of the product and board members of Telstra. I think when we can punch out the transformation of our product from a VR headset to a mobile phone and then people can look at this experience through their very own mobile phone from a simple flick of a link or an app then that that’s going to accelerate the understanding through education. Business model wise and all those fears is interesting for us to address and for the moment on our website we don’t worry about going in depth with that because we just want to do a bit more closed loop feedback with the industry and that’s where us working with Startupbootcamp is a wonderful opportunity to join with people from a great variety of sports to get that closed loop feedback and then, by the end of our three months we’d be able to then have some education tools available freely on our website where people can begin to explore at their own leisure.
“Not everyone has a VR headset to have that ‘Ferrari experience.’ Once we are able to optimise the data for mobile, which has less CPU, less GPU, but still can be a beautiful experience, once people will have that, and of course, the Telcos see the potential of having a differentiated product for 5G take up we could be cooking with gas.
“Humense has now achieved a world first putting true volumetric video of football on to a mobile phone in augmented reality.”
You already have really high calibre stakeholders, you’ve been doing trials with Paris Saint-Germain for example, where does the next six to 12 months ago in this education, public adoption journey?
SO: “We’re looking at partnerships with Telcos around the world to give them a 5G differentiated story, there’s been 10 quarters in a row of declining sales. Even pre-COVID consumers are saying, I don’t need to upgrade my phone but Telcos are selling advantages such as faster downloading of movies and improved gaming experiences, even esports, but I don’t feel those motives are strong enough, especially now as we’re experiencing a pandemic and the resultant economic crisis. So there’s got to be something that is way more transformative.
“So the next six to 12 months is to help get Humense synonymous with that 5G differentiated value and we can do that most effectively with sports. It can be done without too much of a stretch of imagination once people have had that soft culture experience, they’ll be able to say, ‘oh, this could actually do interesting things in my workplace.’
“Obviously we have want to accelerate product development. I look at incremental things of what we can do in six week blocks, three months blocks and I think that even though we’ve been in lockdown, ironically, it’s been a catalyst.
“Imagine watching football on your 2-D screen, I’m just going to be a little arrogant and call that the dumb screen and then you’re watching it at the same time that match with your specialised Humense app, which helps you see that game spatially in coordination with the TV because we can pick up on audio, we can pick up on different things and coordinate it. What we’re doing is, let’s say a million people are watching a Bundesliga match or a State of Origin. Well, in the past, measuring TV audience is almost like on/off – they’re watching it, or they’re not watching it. There’s not much detail about how they’re watching it.
“With a phone, if we got the fan watching the dumb screen and the smart screen, we’re not only able to give incredible data analytics on how people are watching. We got them on two screens, we’re adding so much more value and anchoring for the broadcaster.
“In my mind and having dug at this for a decade, it’s not too much of a stretch of imagination for me where rights owners can get double, triple, even quadruple the return on investment that they never got before from the 2-D rights.
“We’re in a crisis. Einstein told us insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. Let’s think different, let’s open our minds and they’ll discover that actually this tool is a way to multiply return on investment of their 2-D rights. So not only you have that stickiness by having multiple screens, co-ordinating insights to games but personalised ads for the first time, you can’t do that on a dumb screen. On the smart screen, connected with a game engine and your personalised inputs pre-download or pre-game, we can coordinate some beautiful, personalised experiences.
“The LED’s advertising screens at a game can be personalised based on needs or desired it could be taking a trip or needing insurance for a car or boat, so we can personalise things. That’ll start in a simple way but I can see it getting sophisticated within a three to five years zone. There’s all sorts of ideas in and around gaming, how do you sort of put an esports layer on top of this and we know from Fortnite or League of Legends how much money is involved in personalising skins.
“What’s come through during COVID-19 at the elite level of sport, with your major rights holders, is that finances are not to be taken for granted. The music industry is the classic example where it was just records and tours, now the music industry is open to many different revenue streams – 50 or more. Sports have to catch up too. Humense offers several new revenue streams immediately.”