Friday, January 23, 2009

An Order All His Own

Q: Introduce us to yourself and your company.

My name is Carlos Ulloa, I’m Creative and Technical Director at HelloEnjoyTM, my own and recently launched interactive studio, based in London.

We’re specialized in advanced interactive 3D experiences with Papervision3D, a 3D engine for Flash I created three years ago and released as Open Source a year later.

Thanks to the strong community of developers gathered around the project, it’s now become quite a robust piece of technology, and I find it an excellent tool to push the boundaries of traditional web content, which is ultimately our goal as a brand new studio.

I work with my partner and girlfriend Libertad Aguilera, who doubles as studio and project manager. But because we’re a multi-headed beast -an interactive studio with an OS venture- we often find ourselves covering several other roles.

Q: Interactive Producers come from all walks of life, they are a hybrid of talents, tell us about your background and how you got interested in digital production?
My interactive career started in the games industry. I have always loved video games and came to the UK in the mid nineties to find job as a game developer. I ended up working at Psygnosis and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in several managerial roles.

I’d say that was probably the time in which my job was more similar to that of the interactive producer as you describe it, but video game industry timescales have never been applicable to the Web, so the approach was fairly different.

And it was precisely the fact that projects were so painfully long, along with the fascinating world the Internet was turning out to be, that got me into Flash development. That was 1999, and I had moved back to Madrid again. It was an interesting time in which I also worked as a graphic designer and art director.

The bubble came and went away and, after working as an interactive designer in several Spanish agencies (Ogilvy, DoubleYou), I moved to London and spent some great time at Hi-ReS!

But by then PV3D was already in full bloom and I realized the best way to keep challenging myself and pushing the technology was to set up my own studio.

Q: How do you stay on top of emerging technologies and keep your team informed and motivated?
One of our favourite quotes is Alan Kay’s “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”, so we devote a lot of time to R+D. That’s not easily done while working on client projects so we always have some personal project on the move where we can really push the envelope. But finding the balance between the two might sometimes be a bit tricky.

The team is small and motivation is not usually a problem as we always try to work in what we like best.

Q: What does your ideal client/project look like?

An ideal client wants to do something never tried before and doesn’t think time estimates are negotiable.

An ideal project is fully interactive and, of course, in realtime 3D.

If there’s something I’ve learnt in this business is how difficult it is to engage users: having them lingering for more than 1 minute in your site is an achievement to be proud of. And although that bothers me a lot, if I have to be honest, I understand them, because I rarely spend more than fifteen seconds unless I’m truly impressed with what I’m offered.

I consider interactivity a key ingredient in that offer, the more interactive a project is, the more choices and freedom you’re giving to the user, and that’s very stimulating from his or her point of view, and will make the project more successful.

I have the impression that, during the last years, interactivity has been sadly dimmed by video special effects. Video has been offering so many creative possibilities that interactive agencies around the world, engrossed with the new tools, seemed to forget that watching a video, even when you click more than one button to reach it, is basically a passive activity for the user, and if you ask me, better done from a cosy sofa.

The same applies, in my opinion, to commercial sites that try to build a community just for the sake of it, without realizing users usually have better things to do than filling forms or providing the client with quality, compelling content for their site. In my experience, is usually the other way round what users love.

Realtime 3D, on the other hand, opens up a whole new world of interactive possibilities because gives the user more freedom of movement, and thus it’s much more engaging. Also, 3D might be fairly new on the Web, but it’s been around for a while now, and we already have several generations of users brought up with an aesthetic sensibility for 3D. So much that if you look at the game or animated film industries, you’ll find an overwhelming majority of 3D titles. And I can’t find any good reason why interactive projects on the Web won’t follow the same path, so to qualify for ideal I think a project must be in 3D. Is the best way to do great things right now.

Q: How do you educate your clients and set realistic expectations for a project?
We’re very technical in nature, so we don’t really spend time educating clients. We do prototypes. We speak interactive better than any other language and we have found the best way for a client to understand what we want to do for them is to experience it first hand. Prototyping also allows us to identify risks and set up expectations, something particularly important on 3D projects, which can get very complicated (and when I say complicated, I really mean it).

Q: What was the best project you have ever worked on?

Our new site, coming soon.

Q: How many projects are you comfortable producing at one given time?

We’re a small studio and can only take one project at a time. 3D projects are less difficult to coordinate than, let’s say, video super productions, as far less people is involved, but because they are so technically complex you need the whole team completely focused on it.

Q: What does your dream production team look like?

I have had the immense luck of working with very talented individuals, both on commercial projects and on Papervision3D, and I believe that a great team is made by great professionals, with a good deal of expertise in their own field but also a great understanding of other areas, multidisciplinary souls that can bridge the gaps that often arise when something is never been done before. It helps if they know each other and are used to work together, but my experience is that communication is not a problem if team members have respect for each other, and in this business respect is earned through amazing skills and brilliant work.

I like the idea of teaming up with other small studios just because they’re one of the best at what they do, and I’d like to see more often interactive teams built in that way.

Q: How do you ensure that your client’s best interests are met?

We rely a lot on our prototypes. We build a technical proof of concept at the beginning of the project, and that helps us to determine if it’s feasible. Sometimes it isn’t, because technology has its limitations, but in those cases we can provide creative workarounds to get an equally engaging experience. In any case, having a prototype up and running, helps a lot to keep both client and team on the same conceptual track.

Q: What is your vision of what the next phase of our industry is going to look like?

As you may have guessed, my vision is in 3D.

There’s always been this peculiar debate around 3D vs. 2D, and it’s not exclusive of websites, it already happened in games a while ago and it’s still going on strongly on traditional animation. You can imagine where I stand in that debate. I don’t believe there can be such thing as “too much 3D” in a project, as in my opinion there’s still lot of unexplored territory, and every time someone thinks and builds in 3D (even the ubiquitous Papervision carousels), it’s a step forward towards to what I believe is going to be the future: really intuitive 3D user interfaces.

And we’re already starting to have a glimpse of that. You just need to take a look at the recent photo gallery applications, Apple’s iPhoto ’09 or the app included in the last PS3 firmware update. Both make extensive and unobtrusive use of 3D, in a very user-friendly way. I’m also very curious about the new paradigm change 3D will bring to the desktop metaphor, a path brilliantly opened by BumpTop and which apparently Apple is also exploring. Another mind-blowing example of what 3D will do for us in the future is Microsoft Live Labs’ Photosynth, which builds 3D models collecting data from digital pictures on the Web.

I mean, there’s much more to 3D than the classic shoot’em up game view (which I agree, it might be difficult to navigate for non-gamers) and objects turning around 360, but even those are being reinvented in my iPhone screen with every new app.

Which brings me to another of the future’s features. All sorts of computers, phones, tv sets, gadgets and appliances will be connected to the Internet, and we will access it without even noticing is through a different device, making interactivity pervasively linked to our everyday life.

And just wait for multiuser applications to be all around. The future looks bright indeed for our industry.

Q: Please share a snippet of wisdom that you would like to impart on our readers.

Look for inspiration all around you, not just websites. Video games, films, motion graphics, TV series, all sorts of online communities, music, podcasts, comics, games, toys, Amazon, TEDTalks, Wikipedia, life. Subscribe to all kinds of blogs, newspapers and magazines, not only those of your peers, and try to keep pace with technology, because it defines our industry and it will shape our future.

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