The Present + Past of Fast Co’s Most Innovative Companies

In 2018, Isobar was placed on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies in AR/VR List.  Fast forward a year and Isobar Group U.S. agency, Firstborn, was awarded that very same honor.  We sat down with Isobar’s Chief Innovation Officer and Firstborn’s Chief Creative Office (both Dave’s) to talk about what this means for the group, how it has impacted Isobar/will impact Firstborn and why both agencies have doubled down so heavily on emerging technology.

Awesome news about the win! What’s the most exciting part of it for your team?

Dave Snyder: I would have to say it’s the recognition for all of the hard work the team has done. A lot of what we’ve been doing hasn’t been done before and, if it has, it certainly hasn’t happened with the level of craft we are applying.

How has VR/AR changed over the past year?

Dave Snyder: Though I like the experience more, VR has not been a big focus for us this year. It’s just not something a lot of brands (from a marketing POV) see the value in anymore—it’s a hard to get them to pay for it.

For me the possibilities of webAR are quite interesting and exciting although it’s been a bit tricky with some of the latest privacy-driven changes from Apple’s Safari browser. WebAR has great potential but still faces some hurdles mainly in the user journey department, which is a critical, but regularly overlooked, piece of the experience puzzle for both agencies and clients. We do a lot of education around this. Clients see it as a panacea for scaling the experience. The reality is that (at the time of typing this) Web View blocks webAR capabilities—which is a shame—making it hard to weave this type of experience into a campaign as fluidly as we’d all like.

Dave Meeker: Breaking AR and VR into different things makes sense for this. While we still see a lot of similarity in the content production side of things, they are very different and have very different use cases and hardware. For VR, the move towards lower cost, higher performance headsets is the biggest thing. The Oculus Quest is what everyone is looking at right now – 6 degrees of freedom, self-contained and with a behemoth like Facebook behind it – This could be what the VR industry needs to get a footing and finally seem real enough for brands to invest in.

From the perspective of AR, 2018 was the year that it went from emerging technology to common-place. And yeah, we’ve been able to do decent mobile AR since the Google G1 Android device, but the new phone hardware that’s been released in the last year along with software frameworks from both Apple (ARKit) and Google (ARCore) make development easier and apps way more stable. This opens up the door for so much creativity. The issue in the past was mostly with tracking and making AR feel integrated into our surroundings. I suppose that’s why the term Mixed Reality has gained so much traction.  Before this, AR really felt more like digital content plopped on top of the camera feed on mobile devices. Now it feels like you are seeing content within the field of view of your camera. That sense of realism and ability to have objects “lock” themselves into the environment is really huge.

We’ve also seen a ton of other HMD (Head Mounted Display) device companies fold up this last year. This includes some that people really thought had legs, including ODG and META. And with that, we’ve also seen a bunch of startups emerge. CES was just full of them.

What is it about Firstborn and Isobar, respectively, that got them recognized by Fast Company?  Specific projects aside…

Dave Snyder: What’s kept Firstborn relevant for over 20 years is that we’ve always been able to make emerging (or near emerging) tech make sense in the context of marketing efforts. We’re often early enough to capitalize on the PR bump associated with emerging-tech in marketing (and plan accordingly). We also always try to ensure that there is a legitimate idea and brand/consumer solve. We’re strategic about it and favor an idea-based approach vs AR/VR as a tactic (which is sadly rampant). The idea always supersedes the experience. It’s needs a reason to be.  I think what makes our tech-enabled ideas succeed is just that: the tech allows us to take a story, idea or message to a place it otherwise couldn’t without.

Dave Meeker: We had been challenged various times by clients and others (on the media side) working with clients and prospective clients about how to show some means of return in investment of mixed reality experiences. This was all happening as we had various experimental and R&D projects in the works. One of these projects was the evolution of an platform Isobar owns called MindSight. Mindsight is a way for us to get a read on consumer’s emotional response to content and messaging. Everything just seemed to align for us at this time and we decided to extend Mindsight into Mixed Reality. This led to a new product called Mindsight XR which allowed us to measure real-time biometric feedback while users are inside of Virtual Reality or experience augmented reality, leading to insights on how content drives emotion and even how we can customize content on-the-fly to influence a user’s emotional state. That was pretty hot. I think that is what prompted the Fast Company awards, but we had so much stuff going on in AR/VR at the time including the Cannes Grand Prix winning project, Aeronaut.

How has being recognized by Fast Company impacted Isobar’s innovation practice, if at all?

Dave Meeker: It has certainly helped lend additional credibility in the marketplace. The Mindsight XR platform is really cool and it shows how we solve legitimate business problems by using creativity and technology together. It’s very much aligned to our larger business and how we approach things.  If nothing else, it’s a really good conversation starter.

Isobar and Firstborn work closely together on many innovation projects.  How does it feel/what does it mean to have both been recognized as one of the Most Innovative Companies in AR/VR?

Dave Snyder: It’s a nice nod and sign of mutual respect. I hope that the signal it sends to brands is bigger. And I hope that these brands can see beyond the current media fixation on AR. Both companies (this is Firstborn’s second time on the list since I’ve been here) are always innovating—shaping the future of what experience means is what we both do better than most. And we’ve been doing so for a decades.

Dave Meeker: I agree with Dave. It shows the marketplace that we are really good at this stuff and that we take innovation seriously. It’s not a buzzword or something we just talk about. We really put our time and energy into a culture that is nurturing to a culture of Innovation. This is our thing and it’s cool to be recognized across the larger organization.

What’s next for Firstborn and Isobar when it comes to AR/VR?  Or, for that matter, Emerging Technology in general?

Dave Snyder:Simple: keep executing with a high level of craft and steer clients towards executions that have purpose and/or an actual idea (vs a bolt on tactic). From our end, the use of emerging tech must add a layer to the communications story we are trying to tell.  If it doesn’t, we take a critical eye to it and have open and candid conversations with our clients about it.

What’s exciting with AR/VR is that we are laying the foundation for what is next. And what’s next (smaller; faster; ubiquity) is exciting. A fully layered word—a 4th dimension—is exciting (and terrifying) at the sametime.

Dave Meeker:What’s next for us is keeping up on what makes sense for people and for our clients. We will never push emerging tech just because it is new. We want to use technology to enable creative ideas – that have a real foundation. Technology is simply an enabler. That doesn’t mean we downplay it. Our teams are extraordinarily talented in terms of engineering.  We are also fortunate to have the power and global scale of Isobar behind us. Part of my job is to influence all 6700+ Isobarbarians across the globe as it pertains to our take on and use of emerging technologies. Within that there is a ton of R&D going on which, in our world, leads to a lot of people working to define what the art of the possible looks like.

As technologies evolve, what are you most excited about in 2019?

Dave Snyder:I hope our user behaviors evolve in ways that make using AR more familiar—a regular part of daily routines. It needs adoption. For this to happen we need great experiences that add value, whether that’s a genuine moment of delight or a true utility. I think things like AI will, as its been, happen predominantly behind the scenes. The user will reap the benefits without knowing much about what just happened (eg. that perfectly timed Google recommendation).

At a level far beyond AR (but related to it), I do think that we need regulation around privacy and AI. That 4th dimension I referenced earlier requires connected cameras on everything. A lot of people don’t know that just about everything is a camera nowadays. Whether it’s snapping something “printable” or not doesn’t matter. That exposure, and the governing AIs making sense of it, are a radical privacy concern that is almost incomprehensible for most to understand—let alone regulate. The perpetually monitored state we are marching towards can’t be undone. It won’t be undone. So my concern going into 2019 and beyond is how we live safely in it. We’re ready for the 95% of exponential good that emerging tech will bring. We aren’t, as a society or democracy, prepared for the 5% of exponential bad it’s guaranteed to uncover. Deep fakes, 2020 anyone?

Dave Meeker:I’m excited to see that AR is becoming pretty ubiquitous and accepted as a new medium. I think there are massive opportunities to take this into the enterprise and develop entirely new platforms for collaboration and such for clients. We’ve been exploring this in detail and it all bubbles up to the notion that spatial computing is the next big thing. We are a ways away from that, but the promise is larger than what we see with mobile devices over the next couple of decades.

Wait… you asked about 2019.  I always find myself slipping down the road a bit too far! If we back up, this year is going to see more uses of mixed reality, machine learning, voice, computer vision and other concepts that allow machines to mimic human capabilities while at the same time provide humans with superhero-like robotic powers. That’s an interesting premise, and to Dave’s point – we all need to be active participants in the conversation around ethics – from data privacy to the impact that automation will continue to have.   I am also very excited about the continued evolution of volumetric capture and the evolution of “Cameras” as they really start to become 3D and environmental capture devices. The potential for new kinds of experiences driven by this is just incredible.