Why trek up to the Arctic circle to capture 360 footage of the aurora borealis yourself, when you can license stunning footage someone else already shot? That was Alan’s thinking when he availed Blend Media of their services, whose founder — Damian Collier — is today’s guest.

Alan: Hey, everyone, Alan Smithson here. Today, we’re speaking with Damian Collier, co-founder and CEO of Blend Media, a centralized hub for all things VR and AR content. From stock 360 images and videos, right up to fully customized interactive experiences. All that and more, coming up next on the XR for Business podcast. Damian, welcome to the show.

Damian: Hey, Alan. How are you?

Alan: I’m so amazing. It’s been a long time since we spoke. I think the first time we met was probably four or five years ago, when you started this wonderful journey. How did you get here?

Damian: Yeah. Well, I’m just thinking back to a panel that we did at VR LA, which must be at least three, if not four years ago. It must be about that time.

Alan: Got to be four years ago, yeah.

Damian: It’s crazy how time flies. And obviously, having been in VR and AR, we’ve seen peaks and troughs, and ups and downs, and all in between.

Alan: That panel, because it was with– the one with Saul Rodgers, right?

Damian: That’s right.

Alan: I haven’t had Saul on the show, I haven’t reached out him. That panel at VR LA, to me, was like the pinnacle of the VR hype. That event was so amazing. And it seems like we kind of took a step back a bit in subsequent years, and now it’s starting to pick up again.

Damian: Yeah, it was great. It was a big event. But you know what? This week I attended Laval virtually. And I think they had something like ten thousand attendees and dozens, if not up into hundreds of speakers. And I have to say, for me, it really felt engaging. I didn’t attend in the headset. I attended it on the web app that they built. But it felt buzzing. It felt– there were some great presentations and keynotes.

Alan: I have to say yes, where was: my wife, Julie Smithson, was one of them. [laughs]

Damian: Oh, great. I’m sorry to say I missed Julie’s lecture, but I saw some great keynotes.

Alan: What was the highlight of Laval Virtual for you?

Damian: Well, I think it was reconnecting with people virtually. There were people there that I — like you — I haven’t seen physically for some time. And seeing their avatars and waving at them across the room, and then kind of setting up separate meetings together, it was really well done.

Alan: Amazing. The last time I was on your site, there was Blend Media, and then it ended up being Blend Market, Blend Stock, Blend Studio. Walk us through kind of the progression of where you were when we met, and where you are now and what’s what’s changed.

Damian: Yeah, we started off as just a new footage business, because I am a serial entrepreneur, they say. I have businesses all in the content space. So that is my background, kind of rights management, IP. My last business was a viral video business that I sold in 2014. And I just had this idea when Mark Zuckerberg posted the first 360 video around about November 2015, I just had this idea for creating what I guess would be described as the Getty Images for 360 video. And that was the original idea. And I raised a bit of seed money, built the first platform in the first part of 2016 as a 360 video stock footage site, helping creators monetize their 360 video content through a platform.

Alan: I have to interject for a second, because we have used that as a client, and we found some beautiful, beautiful, really high resolution 360– I believe it 8K video that we used in VR. And it was just stunning video. So I can attest to the quality on there.

Damian: Well, I’m glad you benefited from that. And that platform has grown and grown and grown, and continues to grow to this day. We’ve always with our content on Blend Stock been very selective about what we accept. We probably get four times the number of submissions than we actually upload to the platform, because it is premium. We always — from the very beginning — didn’t want to include footage that was badly stitched, or not stabilized, or was produced by anyone other than professional 360 creators. And we’ve been very fortunate to grow that library to now what is the largest 360 video library in the world. We’ve got about 25-26,000 videos up on the platform. Plus, what we don’t have up on the platform is quite a lot of VR films that are narrative or episodic or series that people are licensing, businesses are licensing for their platforms when they need more than sort of stock footage clips. But that business has grown and grown, we have over a thousand creators who contribute to that platform. And our clients are everyone from independent apps, platforms to Google, Facebook, Intel, Deloitte, Disney, large range of enterprise clients, who just find it quicker and more cost effective to license quality content from a platform, than go out and shoot it.

Alan: Well, especially now with this whole virus thing, you can’t even– even if you wanted to go and get the stock footage, it would be a lot more difficult than it was. So you guys are well positioned. And as an agency– I’m not saying we’re an agency, I’m just saying as an agency, you’d be looking for that, any of these shortcuts to get your job done. When we used the content, it was actually for a client. Funny enough, it never ended up seeing the light of day, the product died. But the idea was we needed a scene, it was an aurora borealis scene. And I’m not going to go way up to the north and some camera people up there. We looked on your site, found several options and found one that can match the client’s colours. And so you’re kind of starting to expand now.

Damian: Yeah. So we were and still do a lot of licensing for a whole range of applications, from virtual galleries, to VR for medical purposes, to enterprise training, travel, advertising, marketing. But one thing that kept coming up was that people were saying, “Well, you’ve got some amazing stuff. But do you have this, or could you produce this?” And we started falling into almost executive producing new production. So we did a big project for the McCallan whisky where they wanted– they built this new– they spent £21-million building this new distillery up in Scotland. And they have a big, big US fan base, customer base for their whisky. And obviously, you can’t take all your US customers up to Scotland to see this incredible distillery that you built. So they came up with this concept of filming it in 360 and presenting it at Grand Central Station in New York, initially, in a dome and in headsets. So they commissioned us and we sort of pulled from our creative network around the world to film it and do everything else that’s required from storyboarding all the way through. But I never wanted to build a production company. That was never my vision for Blend. My vision was always to become the single solution for all things, initially, 360, and now we’ve expanded into VR and AR. So we raised some more money from our investors, we’re privately backed. We’ve raised about 5-million USD over the course of the last four½, five years to continue to invest in our proprietary technology platforms. And so we expanded Blend Stock and built a second platform called Blend Market. And Blend Market was intended to — and has now achieved — creating a scalable solution to anyone who wants to create VR or AR or 360 or XR or whatever acronym people are using these days, anything immersive. Anyone who wants to create a project or–

Alan: I have to say, I’m going to insert “XR” here. [laughs]

Damian: [laughs]

Alan: Being the XR for Business podcast.

Damian: [laughs] Well, that seems to be the acronym of the day. You might want to register all the Rs as your domain name.

Alan: I wrote an article — you can Google it — called “The ABCs of R”, going through every single letter in the alphabet, because I just got sick of them.

Damian: Yeah. It seems to have evolved and I don’t think in some ways that’s helpful, because for people who are in our industry, you say “MR”, they have no idea what you’re talking about, or XR. I think VR and AR have become ubiquitous as acronyms now, so people do understand them. But for us, all things immersive, we built Blend Market so that anyone who wants to create a project or find a solution. Whether it’s AR, filters for Instagram, or it’s VR training, or it’s a 360 video over the Angel Falls, whatever it is, 360 VR/AR. They upload a brief onto our platform, and all of the creators who are on the platform can communicate with them through our internal messaging platform. They can make an offer, they can set budgets, they can negotiate upload NDAs. All the things that you would have involved in the commissioning process for commissioning a new production happen within our platform. But it gives creators the ability to find new work and new briefs. And we’re getting load new briefs going up there from businesses like Deloitte and Universal Music and Amazon, Audible. A whole range of other businesses that have uploaded briefs and are finding creators through the platform. And from the client side gives them options to find creators around the world, who are skilled and can demonstrate that skill through their portfolio and all the other ways the creators can show themselves off and negotiate. And through the platform they accept offers and an off they go, kind of like Upwork or some of these other freelancer platforms. But we’re now also interestingly with COVID and everything that’s going on in the world now, we’re getting approached quite a lot for online VR training, conferencing, VR meetings, all those things that as the world has been forced to go virtual, people are exploring. So our goal really with Blend Market is to be the first port of call. Just like you want to find something out today, you go on Google. And it’s your first port of call and you almost do it without thinking. That’s our our vision, is to become the first port of call for anyone who is considering VR/AR, whether they are new to it or experienced in it, premium, providing that optionality. And our products work hand in hand, so if you’re on Blend Stock and you’re looking for a piece of 360 video footage and we don’t have it, ideally, you move over to Blend Market and you’d find a creator in that territory who can film it for you cost effectively. Or if you’re in Blend Market and you happen to upload a brief that says, “I’m looking for a 360 video in Times Square,” if we have that video then you can license it cost effectively from Blend Stock. The two go hand in hand. So that’s our vision and we’re fiercely determined, and our engineering team are working furiously to develop features based on client feedback and just make this super easy, and defragment the VR and AR ecosystem. Because obviously you’ve got creators all over the world and you’ve got clients who want to do these things, and there’s no real hub for finding the right creators or finding the right content. So that’s our goal.

Alan: It sounds like an amazing goal. So now when I go to blend.media, I’ve Blend Market — which we talked about — Blend Stock — which is the stock images and video — and then Blend Studio. So explain maybe Blend Studio and how that works.

Damian: So Blend Studio was a product that we developed about two years ago, because we were starting to get asked quite a lot by clients, mostly enterprise clients: “Okay. So I have a 360 video. How do I make it interactive? How do I go from one 360 video to another, maybe through a portal or a hotspot? How do I add– is there a way to add regular fixed frame 2D video within a 360 environment? Can I add a banner or a logo or something clickable? Does it work in WebVR, as well as in headsets?” And so we thought, well, if we can build a very simple drag-and-drop tool that allows people to do that super easily, then let’s see if we can do that. So we built it. And that is Blend Studio. And there’s other drag-and-drop 360 VR editors out there, that is their main business and they’ve tried to monetize that. But we really built it as a entry level tool for people to play around, create proof of concepts. And although we monetize it in a low level way, really it’s there to help those creators and clients kind of play around and develop things. But it’s super easy to use. As you say, you can find it on blend.media. And we have a freemium model for that, where you can sign up and play around with it, and develop your first few projects and publish them, and it publishes into WebVR. It also provides you with an embed code if you want to embed it on your website. And it also publishes straight into the social media platform. So Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all the others that host and accommodate 360 video. And that is all suite of projects and products, and they all go hand in hand. We have some clients, big enterprise clients who use all three. And they use Blend Studio to create proof of concepts. it’s the only 360 VR editor that is linked to content. So we’ve dynamically linked Blend Stock in via our API. So if you were in Blend Studio, you can either upload your own 360 video or you just search our library and pull it in and license that piece of content for your particular project. And we like to think it’s just super easy to use and making people’s life easier.

Alan: We need more things to make our life easier. That is for sure. And creator tools like this are definitely needed. I’m looking at the three parts of the business. Are there any companies that you’re working with now that are kind of leveraging all three? Like the whole gamut.

Damian: Yeah. So we have a large enterprise client, who I’m under NDA with, but they’re one of the large tax consultancy businesses. They use all three. They use Blend–

Alan: One of the big five.

Damian: It’s one of those guys. And we have a very close relationship with them and with their tax team, with their employee services team. They use Blend Studio a lot for internal prototypes. They license content for conferences and events and some of their own big enterprise clients. And they have recently completed their second project on Blend Market, which was a project in China, to film something for an immersive employee product that they’ve developed. So obviously, as an entrepreneur — and as a human being — it’s an absolute thrill when you’ve built something, or you’ve conceived an idea for a business and you’ve seen it grow, and you have a team working round the clock to develop product, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing your products used by significant businesses and solving problems.

Alan: I think as a creator of products, I think the best thing is just seeing somebody use it. [laughs] Like, “Wow! It actually got used! And it didn’t break!”

Damian: [chuckles] Well, things always break, but you have a great engineering team. Really smart guys who have extensive experience, particularly in the video space. So they understand the dynamics of video. And now in WebVR and A-Frame, all the other open source platforms that we can all benefit from. And it’s great that when things do break, they get fixed. And it’s also great when we’re constantly getting client feedback. We spend a lot of time with our clients. And it’s great when a client says, “You know what would make my life even easier, or would make me consume this more, or would be really helpful? If you developed this feature or if your platform could do this.” And then seeing our engineering team go off and — subject to our roadmap and priorities — go off and build it and release it. And it works and it pleases clients and they come back for more. That’s a very special feeling as an entrepreneur.

Alan: It truly is. So on that note, Damian, I wanted to say, first of all, congratulations for getting out there ahead of the curve, raising the capital required to be successful, and then also driving this whole thing forward. So thank you for the hard work, as I know very much first hand how hard it is to build something of value in an ecosystem that is changing daily. I want to just get this from you, because you’ve seen probably way more of this content than most people have. What is one problem in the world that you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Damian: Wow. I mean, that’s a big question. I put it into the context of the world that we are in now. You’re interviewing me on a day when we’re — certainly in London here — locked up in our houses and not able to go out and have meetings and spend time with friends, family, colleagues. I would love to see VR really create that sense of presence again, not to replace it, but in times like this, especially where you’re unable to physically be together. And often I’m unable to physically be with you, Alan and Julie, because we’re separated by an ocean. I’d love to– and I’ve started to play around a little bit with this. There was the Laval Virtual conference, that would otherwise have taken place in France. They created it virtually and did a great job. But I’ve also started meeting friends and some other business colleagues in Altspace. I would love to get to the point where you can just put on a headset and feel like you are in the same room, and it creates that same level of engagement. And I really don’t think we’re that far off, having spent a lot of time kind of playing around with that. I think it’s getting closer and closer.

Alan: I couldn’t agree with you more. And I’ll give a quick plug out to the xrcollaboration.com. You will find a free resource guide to all the XR collaboration tools and platforms out there. That was a partnership between MetaVRse, Accenture, Qualcomm and Deutsche Telekom and a couple of other organizations, the AWE, The Area and VRARA and CleanBox. So big shout out to the group that put that together, because to your point, being in these spaces together really is something magical. So we figured if we put together this guide, more and more people would be able to use it.

Damian: That sounds great. And as we develop our plan market, we are — as I said — expanding beyond connecting freelance creators with clients, to connecting solutions providers to clients. So whether it’s our good friends that Talespin who do the VR training or Strivr, who also do the training or anyone else who provides the solutions, we want to be that hub to defragment the industry. So I will definitely go check that out.

Alan: Well, it’s interesting, Kyle has been a guest — Kyle Jackson from Talespin — has been a guest on the podcast, but I still haven’t had Derek Belch from Strivr on yet. So if you talk to him, send him a nudge.

Damian: I’ll get him.

Alan: There’s any last words you want to share with everybody, Damian?

Damian: No. I guess just in today’s world, I hope everyone is as healthy as they can be. I hope everyone is staying sane and Blend Media, if we can help anyone in any way with them with VR/AR projects, we’d love to do so.

Alan: The website people can find you on his blend.media.

Damian: That’s it.

Alan: Thanks so much, Damian.

Damian: Great to talk to you, Alan. All the best.

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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