(00:04) Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of Humans aren’t Robots, a series of conversations with designers and creative thinkers uncovering the human elements of teams in modern business practices. On today’s episode, we sat down with the co-founder of PHORIA, a really cool studio out of Melbourne, Trent Clews de Castella. I met Trent at PawsFest earlier in the year. PHORIA specializes in immersive technologies, that is virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality.And they aim to transport us to other places, other worlds, really cool technology.
(01:27) Great to be discussing how humanity can come together to drive action.
(02:35) So what’s been the journey like for you? 30 people is no mean feat.
(02:45) We’ve grown somewhat organically. We had 5 founders, I went to school with all of them, so we kind of broke apart and did our separate things individually and then have come back together with a whole bunch of different skills and really brought that into the fold. And that’s kind of helped us hustle and get a lot done on a shoestring budget. We work in, we call it XR, but basically, we started with 3D scanning and talking about virtual reality. Early days were pretty rough. Six years ago.
(03:38) Because the beta of the Oculus was six or seven years ago, wasn’t it?
(03:40) Yeah, definitely a DK1 one. I remember getting it and being so elated with joy to try it out and jump into a real roller coaster and feeling pretty nauseous for about two days after that.
(03:52) As 5 founders are you multidisciplinary?
(03:58) Absolutely. Our CEO, who was working in a corporate recovery, had the perfect mindset for starting the startup because hé been working with bankrupt businesses a lot of the time. One of the most transformative has actually been our creative director, a designer who’s just become a storyteller. Same again with one of the co-founders is a photographer. And he turned to a filmmaker, then turned into a 360 storyteller and he’s now leading some of the craziest stuff that I’ve ever seen be produced. And similarly our GM, he just loves a good spreadsheet, but his mind just works like a machine and he just knows what needs to be done and keeps us in check. And I don’t really know what my role is or what I’m doing here, but I’m having a good time. We went to high school together. In the early days people were looking at us and they’re like, no chance, like you’re friends, your business is going to crumble and your friendship is going to be destroyed. I think communication has been really key for us. We’re still all mates. And never been stronger. It’s really solid.
(05:42) So tell me about some of the stuff you’re working on. Thirty people is that primarily developers or what’s the structure?
(05:48) We’re probably about two thirds developers. We cover two camps. So we have a Web based platform called Captured and the way that works is it looks at spatial data. We’re thinking about the physical world, like it’s not two dimensional. So we’ve been 3D scanning spaces and then creating a vessel for people to go on and experience it from afar. But recently, we’ve found tools like VR upgrade where you can feel like you are physically there, but through things like augmented reality, we’re now actually being able to tap into it in a way that helps transform the way that we can interface with these environments when we’re physically there. And so you can imagine some of the stuff we’ve been doing is actually tapping into the visible layers of data around us. Or maybe I’m about to drill a hole here in the ground and I want to see where the plumbing infrastructure is or an electrician with the electricals through the walls. So really it’s data. And we look at how we can interact and connect with it. And we built a Web platform that just opens up for anyone to jump in and then create these digital assets, but then turn them into different things.
(07:08) When we started, it was really trying to disrupt the traditional real estate market by empowering the homeowner to create more transparent content of their homes and then really change the frame in which people are experiencing these spaces. So you could walk through the house from the other side of the world, but then also the content and how it’s generated and to automate that. So that’s one side and then the other is a little bit more experiential. We see ourselves as an XR studio and we cross the spectrum, virtual augmented meets reality.
(08:57) A lot of people don’t understand the impact that you have on the planet and you can’t take someone out to the Pacific Ocean and show them the plastic that’s there, so they’d be able to put people in the sort of driver’s seat and actually share some of these experiences for themselves, it’s quite powerful.
(09:15)That’s exactly right. That’s the ethos for these two projects that we’ve been working on at the moment. When it’s a lived experience and it’s really tapping into your core in a way that’s something that’s felt not just something that’s passive, that’s where we feel the magic really sits and something that we see that XR technologies can be a vessel where you can actually feel that heat, so to speak, and you can actually be standing in that garbage patch or swimming in that sea. And so it’s an interesting vessel to really open people’s minds of things that they’re maybe not exposed to on a daily basis.
(10:20) So Captured, as far as use, is real estate one of the primary businesses?
(10:30) Yeah, well, we started in real estate, but it’s shifting now. And so we’re shifting the needle in a way that isn’t like real estate, but it’s actually really just building a bridge between people and place. And so the key ingredient in what we’ve been specializing in is something known as the digital twin, and the way that that works is you basically use that scan information and you feed it to people’s phones or eventually the smart glasses, and then it recognizes where it is in the world and then orients and aligns itself within it. And so then once you’ve tapped into that digital layer of information, now you can start augmenting an infinite number of different layers of content. And so it could be in a museum and you’re creating a guided journey for your children. And so what we want to really try and focus on is using that data and then just helping anyone connect with it.
(12:06) I did renos on my house last year, redid the kitchen. If I’d had an AR way of seeing how the wiring was done behind the walls, that would have saved me a lot of time and hassle, building those layers of data over time. We talk about building these sort of digital histories of ourselves, but that can go out into the world as well.
(13:58) AR VR is this something you’ve been interested in for a long time?
(14:02) I think, yeah, maybe a decade. My background is actually psychology. So a little bit more in that a sense of technology, humanity AR VR are really interesting tools. But I think eventually we’ll see it becoming more human in a way that’s just an evolution of our senses and extending our consciousness.
(14:48) And what do you see looking forward, like how long till it does become AR VR more a part of our lives? Is it the actual hardware that’s still kind of the limiting factor?
(14:58) We’ve been on the rollercoaster definitely the last six years. We’ve actually noticed in the last 12 months through 2019, an exponential shift in the software improving, obviously, but then the price point of the hardware coming down, the content, everyone’s starting to get more formulaic with how they’re going about it. We’re discovering greater principles that make it more efficient and how we’re actually producing this type of content.
(17:40) From the technology point of view, a lot of the customers are just going to be sitting there with VR wanting to go shopping and it’s still easier just to do it on your phone. So until that sort of becomes seamless, like you said, there’s frameworks or things in place that allow that to happen or people need to become used to things too.
(18:08) And at the end of the day virtual reality absolutely isn’t the solution for everything. And I think that’s what the maturity of the last few years has meant, where you’ve seen things like education, training simulations, have absolutely exploded. You’ve got IKEA making furniture, you can jump into your space. You’ve got Nike point your phone at your feet and you can drop in a fresh pair of kicks and see how that looks and feels. And then also, Google are doing something really interesting with Google Lens, which is visual search. So maybe you’re in a shopping center and you’re looking at a product and you want more information if your phone can actually detect it and then surface that additional insight when you need it, then you’re actually making better purchase decisions.
(19:02) I’m personally very excited by the thought of the future of wearable biotech and how that can enhance our life. Like it’s I think people often focus on the negatives of this tech for some reason, as opposed to thinking how positive this is to humanity.
(19:33) Yeah, there’s a lot of really positive things that can come from this. And understandably the fear of social media addiction and gaming and escapism are very real. But it feels like if we get caught up and we dwell in the negative we’re going to be petrified. We’re going to be unable to act and really make the most of these tools. So I really hope that we can really help pave the way and collaborate and celebrate these and shine a light on the positive use cases for these new tools.
(19:58) What do you see in terms of sort of the roadmap for the next 10 years around things like the glasses you mentioned before?
(20:10) Right place, right time is critical. Google Glass, obviously way too soon. But in terms of ten years from now or even I guess where we’re at today, first the mixed reality is here as developers kit, similar to DK1, maybe six years ago, you got Microsoft and a company Magically they’ve made two headsets that we’ve bought and played and developed on both of them. It’s really interesting to see how it’s moving. Like you’ll show people an experience where they’re literally looking at a hologram and then touching it and it’s reacting to them. We’ve seen people reach out and touch something and it shocks them and they recoil back because they felt that they’re being electrocuted. And so it’s more than anything, it’s a functional product. And the main hang up that people are getting caught up on is like the field of view is quite small, the costs are quite high. And it’s really the same challenges that we’ve seen in the past paradigm of virtual reality. You’ve got Google and Microsoft and as I mentioned, Magically, Apple, Intel are all making smart glasses. And so they’re kind of playing for this space that could be the next computer, the next wearable. But I’d like to think even a step back from that is really simply just wearables.
(22:44) It’s quite interesting to know, like 30 people over five years, it’s fairly significant growth, how have you managed that angle of the business.
(22:52) I guess when we started, it was definitely always organic. So we’ve very much, on the development side, been fortunate through a lot of the people around us that we’ve connected with have just reached out and they’ve come in for internships and already been really passionate in the space. And so I think that’s been an amazing beacon for someone that would be a right fit technically and on a cultural level. But then along the way, we focus on how we can really pull in those most critical leaders, such as senior developers that can come in and help manage a team and then accelerate their ability to growth.
(24:48) It’s nice to have an area of focus that people are attracted to. They’re going to come out and be like we want to work in this space.
(24:56) Definitely. It’s an exciting space. It feels like you’re plugging it into the future. But it is also really hard, like there’s been some amazing, amazing businesses and some great talent that have great ideas and the market’s just not ready for them yet.
( 25:11) So what’s the ecosystem like here in Melbourne? Is it easy to find good people?
(25:15) Oh, yeah. There’s a lot more open to collaboration and bringing people in that shared similar values in the sense, that a rising tide rises all boats. We’ve been really proactive in trying to frame our approach that these people aren’t our competitors, and if they were to get a project over us we’d wish them the best of luck and hopefully they smash it and then everyone looks at how good the talent is it’s delivering and people start funding more projects. There’s no real degrees at university to go make VR AR stuff. So we found ourselves having to teach the teachers a lot of the time. But actually in the last 12 months, a lot of universities now are actually taking it much more seriously and putting in the type of curriculum that can actually help equip and upskill that next generation.
(26:25) I imagine a lot of it is just people just doing passion projects on the side,?
(26:31) Yeah, and that’s an amazing thing to see. If someone comes to you and they’re like, here’s what I did in my spare time, and that’s incredible. Rather than like, can I have an internship and maybe do something with you and you can teach me what I need to do your job. So I really appreciate and respect that a lot.
(26:50) We develop everything that we make in Unity. And it’s insane that you can throw a developer or a crazy concept and then within like half an hour they can have a functional prototype up and running. I’m not a developer personally, but seeing the centralization, that unity here, embracing and helping fast track a lot of the stable templates, if you wanting to spin up an AR application, there’s easy things to plug in exactly as you pointed out there.
(27:20) And I think that’s great. I mean, the same thing and sort of in the Web world, the frameworks, I think they let you focus on the more important stuff, which is the creating in the strategy around why are we doing what we’re doing as opposed to having to reinvent the wheel every time and building those frameworks.
(27:35) Definitely, yeah. It’s been a really interesting challenge for us looking at the discourse around intellectual property rights. I’ve come from a perspective where I’m a massive advocate for things like open source.
(28:36) And you mentioned the sort of rising tide within the industry. I think it’s good to have open dialogue and share knowledge so that everyone can sort of come up.
(29:00) Definitely. We’ve been working with the Royal Children’s Hospital here, looking at nature assisted VR therapy and so putting on a headset and just getting out into nature. Working with Zoos Victoria in the same vein to then connect people with animals and some amazing learnings there. So we did a research project around keepers and how they would narrate their experience of feeding penguins and looking after gorillas. And then we interviewed the visitors after the experience and asked them what they thought. And it was amazing. You had people commenting, saying, yeah, when I was feeding the penguins or when I was running, there’s enrichment activities for the gorillas. And so there’s this internal monologue now where it’s actually like that was me experiencing that and facilitating it.
(30:19) And if people want to find out about it, where can they look?
(30:21) Definitely we’ve got a new website coming up pretty soon. But PHORIA.io is probably the best place throwing a whole bunch of crazy shit up there all the time.