Bungee Jumping with Untethered VR, featuring Happy Finish’s Daniel Cheetham

Happy Finish’s CEO Daniel Cheetham’s XR bread and butter was virtual experiences and LBEs, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to stay indoors. Now, he explains, he’s exploring the power VR has to help enterprise and the environment.

Alan: Hey, everyone, Alan Smithson here. Today, we’re speaking with Daniel Cheetham, CEO of Happy Finish, a creative technology and content firm based in London, UK. They’ve done XR experiences for Ford, Exxon Mobil, and many more. We will learn today how they’re using digital twins to add real business value. All that and more, coming up next on the XR for Business podcast.

Daniel, welcome to the show, my friend.

Daniel: Thanks for having me.

Alan: It’s my absolute pleasure. I’ve been looking forward to having you on the show for so long. It’s really exciting, the stuff you guys have done. You’ve done everything from putting people from the real world into VR on a bicycle, to help give them a sense of what it’s like to be on the other side of a driving scenario. You’ve done all sorts of things. Tell us, what is Happy Finish?

Daniel: So, Happy Finish — or HF, as we’re now more commonly referring to ourselves — we’re really in the space of creating content and experiences for grand clients, right from the very beginning. And this is second hand information; I joined Happy Finish about six, six and a half years ago. Now the business is fifteen years old. We have been employing post-production and CGI techniques to create versions of the real world — or different flavors of the real world — over the last six to seven years. I think we built a reputation in the immersive technology space. We started working really early on with the DK-1 from Kickstarter, testing, playing around with Unity, seeing what we could do, up to now where we’re easily 200+ commercially funded, brand funded XR experiences. And we work across the whole gamut of immersive tech, from 360 video — which is less the flavor of the month now — through to real time based experiences across Microsoft Hololens 2, and in AR.

Alan: I’ve got a call one thing, that I saw here on your site, and I just got to ask: VR bungee jumping?

Daniel: [laughs] One of my crazy ideas. It was in the context, we were chatting — watercooler moment — chatting about how we could make some noise about untethered VR, particularly around the Oculus Quest. And it just dawned on me as well, what better way to really test what can be done in untethered VR, than tether it to a bungee rope and have somebody jump off a bungee platform?

Alan: So were you the first one to try this?

Daniel: I wasn’t, actually. We a couple of guinea pigs who put their hand up first, but I did try it in the end. It was not without its challenges. We were really putting the tracking system on the Quest to its absolute limits. And so on a few occasions, it was bungee jumping with a blindfold, rather than in VR.

Alan: [laughs] Still pretty amazing that you even bit that off. So was it a brand activation, or was this just an internal–?

Daniel: This is an in-house piece for us. And back until very recently, an area of focus for us was LB. So we’ve created a number of — I think — pretty recognizable motion platform based VR experiences. One that I know got a lot of sharing couple of years ago, that lives at the top of The Shard — the tallest building here in London — where the user will fly virtually — or slide virtually — around the top of The Shard. We got a lot of screamers and yeah, we had a real focus on building out that as a product. We have four or five of these VR slides around the world now. However, LB has taken somewhat of a hit — as you can imagine — based on C-19. And I think there are numerous challenges ahead in terms of expecting audiences to go to a physical location and put on a headset, not least from a sanitary perspective.

Alan: Companies like Cleanbox are cleaning up, so to speak.

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. [laughs] And that sanitary component of VR in public has always been a piece which needs needs careful consideration.

Alan: Yeah. I mean, but the thing is, everybody that I know that’s been in LB or that has been doing this awhile, they are either using alcohol swabs or– there’s a number of different things you can do to keep people safe. And I’ve not heard of one infection caused by VR headset yet. So it’s something that you need to address and take precautions. But I’ve never heard of it ever being an issue.

Daniel: No, totally. I mean, I guess the key thing is to instill that trust in the user base, to make sure that they are comfortable and confident.

Alan: This sky slide that you built, if you want to see it, it’s happyfinish.com, and there’s a video there. It’s truly amazing. You took The Shard and built this fantasy land slide that you go around. It’s just incredible. I’m looking at all these different things that you’ve done, and it’s such a wide variety, from art museums to mindfulness to Ford wheel swap. What happened with the Ford wheel swap?

Daniel: It’s one of my favorite projects, actually. And there have been a lot over the last six, seven years or so. We’ve been working with Ford in Europe for a handful of years now. And alongside Hill+Knowlton Strategies, one of the WPP [Group] PR and strategy agencies. We were engaged in more corporate social responsibility work for Ford here in Europe. I’m a cyclist. I’m also a driver as well. And I’m very conscious of the fact that actually when I’m in either of those shoes, my feeling towards other road users changes somewhat. Irrational, really, because it’s just a trait. So is there something we can do using the empathy power of VR to put people in the shoes of another road user at that point of conflict, to understand it from their perspective? So that’s what we did. We captured two different tracks of content in 360 we shot in Barcelona, and at those points of conflict, we switch the perspective for the user, to see it from the cyclist’s or the driver’s. And it’s not always the drivers at fault. Cyclists can be pretty crazy people at times. I think what added some power there was working with behavioral scientists, to actually measure the impact of the content in the long tail. So the sort of questions of “How do you feel after the experience? Will it encourage you to change your behavior?” And then checking back in later to see if it had stuck with people, resonated with people when they had changed their behavior. I think going back to maybe 4,000-5,000 people that ultimately had the experience, 60 percent of those said they had changed their road using behavior as a result of the experience. And for me, even if we manage to save one person from ending up in hospital, then that’s a real result.

Alan: The problem with these things that I see is that, yes, that’s a real result, but how do you measure it? It’s one of those things that’s impossible to measure. And so what I’ve noticed with businesses — especially after this whole pandemic — is that businesses are really focused on what can this technology do to solve my problems today. And so I know you are working on some other things that are kind of more on the functional practical side of things, rather than marketing. What are some of the other things that you’re seeing, that is driving businesses to deploy this technology?

Daniel: That’s a good segue in, actually, to some of the more business use cases that now we’re exploring pretty heavily. And I think we’re leveraging the hard earned skillsets around understanding how to build a spatial experience and understanding how to create digital twins of products, environments, even people. One of the areas– and I’m hopeful that this is an area where in the new normal in the future, we can bring some positive societal impacts. We are, as an example, working with one of our key clients and to develop digital versions, virtual versions of their future products, removing their reliance on physical sampling. Many, many businesses in the fashion and apparel space rely on samples being made — normally in the other side of the world — being shipped to head office for their retail partners, sales teams to be able to showcase those products to their network of resellers, only for those products never to actually see the light of day. In fact, sometimes in the industry, in the fashion industry, those products are actually incinerated from a precautionary perspective in terms of the sensitivity of those products. So digitizing and virtualizing that supply chain piece can bring pretty big benefits, both from an economical perspective, but also many, many big global brands now need to pay a lot of attention to the damage they may have done previously, or how they can improve their impact on the environment. And I see some real scope there, through digital twinning, to improve that.

Alan: I’ve seen this also. One of the biggest issues that manufacturers of apparel and shoes especially is– my daughter actually owned a shoe company. And I mean, she was only making two styles of shoes, and it took five iterations of design. So when I say five iterations, I mean, she would design it, send it to China, they built a sample, sent it to Canada, we looked at it, sent the changes back. Back and forth five separate times to get it right. And I mean, that’s costly. And that’s two designs on a small scale. Imagine somebody like Nike or Adidas having tens of thousands of samples a day, going back and forth.

Daniel: I’ve heard it said that Nike sampling business is the third largest manufacturer of footware on the planet.

Alan: Just their sampling.

Daniel: I don’t– I’m not sure how true that is.

Alan: And I think they realize that that’s not sustainable anymore. And everybody is looking for solutions, which is fantastic. I don’t typically plug my own products on here, but I have to say, we may have a solution for Real-Time Communications for this.

Daniel: I think you may well.

Alan: Yeah. I really think we can solve some of these issues, anyway, by allowing people to collaborate in 3D, real time. I mean, there’s VR collaboration tools and stuff, but 99.9 percent of people right now are still on on a computer or a phone or tablet. So we have to go where people are, and then move them towards where we want them to be. If you want to check out that, it’s metavrse.com. And I won’t talk anymore about that.

Daniel: [chuckles] Nobody is really irrelevant. We’re at a point in time where the developments in real time rendering– we just have to look slightly ahead to Unreal 5 and its ability to handle a vast variety of CGI assets, which would normally, in previous times, need a lot of optimization to work in engine. So there’s that, plus 5G technologies, and also machine learning to improve the speed at which we can build digital representations of products at scale. Those virtual products, they play a part in the design iteration process, speeding up time-to-market. Also in the sales — B2B sales — process. But ultimately, those same assets can also form a really key part of the go-to-market marketing communications to end consumer as well. So I think we have to be looking at that interoperability of an asset from its inception as an idea, all the way through to consumer.

Alan: I almost feel like I paid you to do this, because we have that exact same– we have a slide about this, that how if you build a — we’ll just use a shoe, because we’ve been talking about shoes — you build a shoe for design, it goes back and forth, it becomes a shoe. Now, that same asset — that same 3D model — can be used for training your team on the features of that product. Now you take it from training, you put a different type of verbiage on it, now it becomes a marketing piece. You make that available to all your your teams online, on your website, and now becomes a sales piece. So we believe that there’s a this kind of design-training-marketing-sales continuum, where brands typically would buy or design or create different marketing materials based on each of those needs. So the marketing department never talk to the training department on photos they needed, they just took more photos. And so there’s this kind of unique opportunity, where you can build one asset and serve several needs of your business with that one thing. And IKEA does this really well, as they create everything in 3D and about– actually more than 50 percent now, but about 50 to 60 percent of their catalog, none of the photos are real, they’re all CGI. So they don’t stage the rooms anymore to take the photos, because it’s just costly. So you can completely stage a room virtually and then take a screenshot of it.

Daniel: Absolutely. These are business needs that, in many ways, this time of enforced lockdown and inability to go and set up those room sets physically on location, and hold those sales meetings, and designers to come together physically in the same space, and look at iterations is a catalyst in many ways for these type of technologies to come in, and actually paves the way for a more efficient future. So I’m hopeful. Positivity is my natural defense mechanism.

Alan: [chuckles] I love it. That’s why you and I get along.

Daniel: [chuckles]

Alan: So much going on in the world right now. So much uncertainty. I mean, there’s unrest. There’s uncertainty. People are legitimately concerned about the future. And the first time in kind of 50 years where we really had a global concern for the future of of humanity. And I think it’s good in a way that it’s woken us all up to some big issues and challenges in the world. I mean, I watched a giant piece of land break off of the landmass and float into the ocean last night. Where was that, Julie? Norway. We have a long, long way to go, to solve a lot of these issues. But I’m confident that students and young people coming up with this technology that we’re giving them will be able to solve a lot of these problems. What problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Daniel: Let me broaden that out, because XR technologies — for me — has always been a subset of communication technologies in general. And what I am– and I think we all in this industry are starting to find is it’s not just about HMDs. It’s not just about delivering content in an augmented or virtual fashion. It’s actually about how that content, whatever it might be — particularly digital content, CGI — is built and created. And can we get to a point of efficiency and scale in that creation, digital twinning, that means it is an appropriate choice for big brands to try and revolutionize their supply chain, for example? So for me, I think it’s about looking at the expertise that we have gained, working at the cutting edge in this area, and then matrixing that across real world problems and thinking about the net positive effect that we can have through applying those skillsets. The one to me, for sure, is looking at the existential threat we face in terms of the damage we’re doing to our planet. I’ve got two kids, I’ve got a nine year old and a six year old. I want to be able to look back at some point in time and say, “I and we in this industry had a part to play in finding a solution for this,” which is probably the biggest problem we will face, coming down the pipe.

Alan: Yeah, I agree. And I think there’s more and more evidence to show that we’ve kicked this thing off long enough. Actually, way back when I was listening to a Voices Of VR podcast by Kent Bye, one of the episodes I was listening to was from the CEO of CCP Games. They make Eve Online. And what he was saying is by having virtual worlds and being able to create a virtual world economy like Second Life, but in your real world. You put on a pair of glasses and your avatar is dressed the way you want. You’ve got maybe digital car, digital space. And being able to do– to be able to satisfy your needs for fashion and your needs for things digitally — because it costs very little to push electrons than it does to push fabric and shoes and metal — maybe we can reduce the amount required by each person still giving them the striving that they need and the challenges that they need, but do so in a way that’s really sustainable, in the fact that we can create more electrons at will. And that that, I think, is one step closer to a sustainable world.

Daniel: I would agree, I would agree. I mean, we’re already seeing interesting things happening in virtual worlds. Everybody, I think, saw some point of news around Travis Scott’s concert in Fortnite. It was really interesting, really interesting. And the level of engagement that it got, I think it proves out that there is lots and lots of scope for things to purely happen in a virtual way. And the level of personalization that can be achieved — if we talk again to fashion — without the need for things to actually be physically made, then it’s– in some ways could be seen as some sort of strange dystopian future where none of us leave our houses ever. But there’s some benefit there. We’ve got to really be thinking about our purchase decisions in a more altruistic way in future. And we don’t need the physical thing, let’s not buy it.

Alan: I agree. We don’t need 500 pairs of shoes in our cupboard, although some of the shoes coming out now are just super cool. [laughs]

Daniel: I mean, what we don’t want to do is limit people’s human desire to have nice things. We need to feel different to each other in some ways, distinctly different as a human to all of the other humans. We don’t want to be homogenized. But that has to be tempered with the sort of innate need that we should all have to belong to a community. And what should come along with that need and want and desire. Oxytocin will trigger serotonin in the brain when you have social interaction. What we should consider alongside getting that serotonin here is am I actually having a negative impact on the future of this community in what I’m doing?

Alan: That leads us to something else that we just released a couple weeks ago called xrcollaboration.com. And basically what we realized three months ago, I guess, when this whole lockdown started, is there’s there’s over a hundred XR collaboration tools from Facial, to ENGAGE, to Meet In VR, to meetingroom.io, Rumi. There’s hundreds of them, or at least a hundred anyway. And how do you — as a business person or an organization or a school or anybody — sift through that? How do you go “OK, well, I need it for 20 people in a classroom. Some have headsets and some don’t. And we’re on multiple devices.” So rather than try to guess their way through that, we made an online tool at XRcollaboration.com that allows people to go through a directory, select the tools they want to use. And then we also created a huge guide that talks about everything from security, to device management, to you name it. It’s tools like this that I think really are going to help people adopt this technology. And it’s one thing to make technology that works. It’s another thing to socialize it, so that people start to use it every day. And I think we’re in that socialization phase, where everybody’s got a phone in their pocket. They have it every minute of every day. How do we engage with them on that device, and then prepare for the future where it’s a pair of glasses?

Daniel: Totally, totally. And that future is really not that far away. As we know, some of the big guys — including Apple — are really not far from market. But for me, I mean, it’s– the reason the mobile device has become such a partner in crime for us all is a utility. In another life, I should have been a UX guy and HCI guy, just through and through. But I truly believe in that the simple, useful interactions are the sticky ones, that’s what drives adoption of innovation. Does it does it fulfill a need for me that is harder to fulfill in other ways? And that need sometimes can be purely entertainment. We all need to be entertained.

Alan: Indeed. Somebody said Netflix represents something like 25 percent of the entire world’s Internet bandwidth? I don’t know if that’s true or not, but, man, that’s crazy. Even if it’s a tenth of that.

Daniel: Yeah, they’ve got the formula right.

Alan: How can people find you? And what is your ideal client look like?

Daniel: First port of call, I’d say our website. It’s www.happyfinish.com. You can check out an array of the cross section of what we do from a content/experience creation perspective there. And always LinkedIn. I’m always open to speak to people on LinkedIn, who have interesting problems that we might be able to apply our skillset to solve. We’re pretty fortunate. We’ve already got some pretty great long term clients that we really enjoy working with. But really now, as we’re realigning and focusing our expertise on the positive impact digital twinning and virtualization of products can have, then any business, any brand that is in the business of building, creating, and then selling products to the wider world. I think we’ve got some solutions that we should talk about.

Alan: So, yeah. Thank you, Daniel, so much for joining us today. We’re excited for the near and long term future of this technology.

Daniel: We’re in a good space.

Alan: It’s been a wonderful conversation and I hope we get to continue this in-person soon over a pint. Thank you so much for joining the podcast today.

Daniel: Thanks for having me, Alan. I look towards that pint at some point soon.

Alan: Thanks for listening, everybody. That’s been the XR for Business Podcast with your host, Alan Smithson, and my guest, Daniel Cheetham. Don’t forget, if you haven’t subscribed, hit the subscribe button so you don’t miss out on any future episodes. It’s xrforbusiness.io.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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