Paragliding into the Future – why a mentor is a great idea in the immersive industry

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Have you ever looked up into the sky, and seen a flock of brightly-coloured paragliders, surfing invisible currents, and thought – who worked out how to jump off a cliff holding onto an oversized silk scarf….?

How did people learn to paraglide without killing themselves? Well, clearly it was a collective effort, and it didn’t happen in one single leap.

Working with immersive tech can feel a bit like paragliding – it’s a leap of faith, jumping into the unknown. Sometimes it feels like a slog up a mountain, but then there’s that ‘wow’ moment as suddenly you see things from a whole new perspective.

But if you fancied a bit of paragliding, would you do it on your own? Not unless you’re nuts! You’d seek out someone who has done it before, someone to show you the ropes, the best way to start. You’d accompany them up the mountain, strap yourself into a tandem harness. And the two of you would run down the slope together and…. WOW!

That’s why we all need mentors.

There’s so much to learn in an emerging industry like this – the technology itself can be mind-boggling: constantly evolving software, hardware, ways to apply the science.  As Stefani Bardin, Professor at New York University jokes:  our work is the ‘Art of The Only Just Possible’.

Then there’s all the jargon, which can initially make you feel excluded. A mentor can explain what some of this jargon means – but also admit when they don’t know. Because a good mentor in this industry admits they don’t know everything either and is happy to share the learning journey.

That’s the great thing about mentoring – everyone benefits. No one knows everything, everyone has something unique to bring to the party. Initially, when I set up Immersive Storylab, all I could bring was my storytelling experience from traditional TV and film, making films for BBC, BFI, Netflix. My business partner back then, Pete Woodbridge, brought the more technical experience of digital film-making.  Making our first project, Secret Coast, an AR mobile app which leads users along a coastal path, we needed lots of people with a wide range of skills.

So we partnered up. And we were all learning. It’s been a massive learning curve ever since. I’ve been lucky enough to have been supported by very open and generous people, passing on astonishing techie expertise and enthusiasm. So now, what I can bring to the party isn’t just experience of cinematic storytelling, there’s a competent level of immersive technology thrown in.

Immersive Storylab now have a history of R&D in AR, VR, XR, and innovative app development. We can apply storyworld creativity and immersive technology to a range of different sectors: heritage and education, property development, product launch, business training and social/charity campaigns. But we still need to partner with other people, to learn from them, to share their skills. As Kevin Cunningham of Three Legged Dog says: we all have to get good at ‘promiscuous partnering’.

At Immersive Storylab, we’re really promiscuous; we join forces with anyone who has what we need, or who needs us. It makes economic sense. It makes creative sense, and it’s so much more fun. Robin McNicholas of Marshmallow Lazer Feast calls the partnership-process ‘the thirteen legged race.’

Keeping all those legs moving in the same direction is part of the challenge. If These Walls Could Talk  was an ambitious project to showcase several different sorts of immersive experience, using Oculus, Hololens, projection mapping and spatial sound. Telling the story of a Liverpool prison, it was a multi-media, multi-reality experience. And to make it happen Immersive Storlylab  partnered with Microsoft, CAVA, Draw and Code, Liverpool University, Liverpool Council, Unesco, Dimensions Studios….

So when you get a mentor, you get access to all their partners, a new network, a whole bunch of creative, brilliant advisors who’ve ‘been there, done that’, jumped off the mountain quite a few times.  You’re not just making one new contact in the business, you’re making potentially – well, hundreds. All with new leads to follow, new knowledge to gather, new skills to use….

teamLab Borderless 

It might be that you know exactly what sort of XR story you want to tell. But you might also want to see what else is possible. Connecting with your mentor’s work is a great way to do this. We’re developing a range of XR story-based projects, social, commercial and artistic, and they all have different aspects of immersive tech to explore: we’re currently working with the Manchester Mayor’s Charity, looking at how to use immersive stories to resolve the complex issues of homelessness. We’re also working with a property development company, to bring architectural plans to life for a cutting-edge residential project. We’re exploring how AR can work in collaboration with a Netflix film. And we’re developing innovative software, using story-rich gameplay to facilitate leadership training for a global company.

Working with a mentor alongside their projects means you can learn on the job. Just like being strapped to the experienced paraglider, you can gain what you need in a safe way, but you’re actually up there, flying, diving, riding those invisible currents. Learning on the job was the way we did it in Immersive Storylab initially, being part of the first CreativeXR cohort. We had to take a run at that cliff edge, make something work, deliver to deadlines. The guys at Digital Catapult were brilliant mentors, providing us with intense business advice, combined with practical technical workshops and lectures, and a host of industry specialists.

That’s why I’m so delighted to be involved in Creative England’s Ideate programme. There are other business mentor programmes to choose from. But specialised mentorship is the prize. The Ideate programme concentrates on XR stories, and they’ve brought in the right specialists for that job. So you can benefit from focussed business mentorship, but you also get someone with immersive storytelling experience.

You’ll be paired with people who understand the value of creativity, of story and how to create it, of the struggles and pitfalls of applying technology always on the cusp of change; you’ll be paired with people who have the vision to see the massive potential that XR represents; and they’ll have the right contacts for you too.

And there’s one other benefit of being mentored: the immersive industry is exciting, with massive potential for social, economic and cultural good. But it also has ethical concerns to consider. All of us in this industry need to discuss those concerns, work through them together, help shape and maintain the right legislation so that the future of immersive storytelling delivers benefit not harm. Getting a mentor will give you the tools you need to be part of the solution not the problem.

Immersive technology is set to expand rapidly. If you want to be part of the steep learning curve, and find new ways to tell stories, then getting a mentor is a no-brainer. Strap yourself to their harness, and take a run off that mountain top….


Find out more about Ideate here.

Register for Creative England’s Meet the Mentors event here.

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