The founder and CEO of REWIND on VR, ground-breaking projects and reality-changing experiences
“Things can get really sci-fi, really quickly!” A conversation with Sol Rogers, CEO and founder of REWIND can take all sorts of directions, thanks to the sort of ground-breaking projects he’s been involved with. Synapses crackle with ideas and unusual connections. REWIND has recently been beavering away in the world of mixed reality and our chat soon begins to feel like a work of speculative fiction.

Initially created as a VFX studio, REWIND fell into the world of virtual reality early and has built a reputation thanks to innovative interactive experiences for the likes of Bjork, the BBC and Red Bull. The industry is peppered with VR and 360 video specialists, each claiming to be a world leader – Sol’s reluctant to make such a claim, instead relying on the quality of their work to speak for itself. And it seems to have worked; these days REWIND often finds itself approached by tech developers to create content for unreleased devices and platforms.

It’s a cool position to be in – and what makes it all the more unexpected is Sol’s journey to get here. He started off fitting freelance VFX gigs around a job with Sony in games design, before turning to academia for over a decade. These days REWIND is going from strength to strength, and they’ve just moved to a bespoke 7,000 square foot, new space in St. Albans, near London, tailor made to their boundary-pushing work and constantly pivoting business.

LBB’s Laura Swinton got her nerd on with Sol.

LBB> REWIND is an interesting company in a really interesting space. You’re known for your ground-breaking VR work, you’re working with all sorts of interactive projects for emerging technologies – how did you get to be playing in this very exciting sandpit?

SR> I was a university lecturer for 15 years, teaching animation, VFX, games, 2D. I worked out the other day that I taught 1300 students – and they’re now in every film, TV and games company. It’s brilliant!

I realised I was going to die in the best job in the world. So, I decided to start my own company – how hard could that be? Turns out: really hard. I went down the VFX route, doing TV commercials, and we fell into doing installations. Digital signage driven by Kinects, projection mapping, and we realised that the PR push and the marketing spend in this area was far greater than the TV production spend.

We started doing clever things like Tweetable vending machines and drivable deckchairs, so when the DK1, the first headset, came out on Kickstarter, I backed it. I could see the power that this thing potentially had – it would be like that Holodeck, it could totally transport you anywhere.

We pivoted quite quickly to producing VR content for the people we were working with – and one of those was Red Bull. They bit on it quite hard because they wanted to show what it was like to be in one of their planes. They asked for a 360 video and I said, ‘you don’t want that’. We wanted to let people really feel immersed, so we suggested building it in a games engine. We knocked up a demo and they loved it. Four months from the DK1 coming out, we had a live project that was travelling around to events. We found out that the booth was still being used three years later. We logged into the machines and found that the experience had been played 43,000 times.

LBB> That’s such a big number! I know people often criticise VR for not being a mass medium with super mainstream penetration, but that’s a big number, especially for something so immersive.

SR> It’s a great number! There were only four seats! It connected with the brand so well, and even though it got a huge uplift from journalists writing about it, really it was about the fact that people ordinarily didn’t get the chance to sit in these planes, and this let them do that.

I’ve been on a mission from that point onward to create really good content with brands and agencies. We’ve had enough of people calling us going, ‘Can we get a VR, please?’ What do you mean by that? Did you mean 360 video? Interactivity? What medium? What platform? The matrix of the content is so tricky, even now. When you get a brief in you have to figure out what it is specifically that they need, where should it go? When someone asks for a TV commercial, you know the specs, you know the stats, you know how it should be delivered and you know how to create the whole thing. If someone wants a piece of VR, you really need to narrow down the brief.

 

LBB> So, when it comes to narrowing down that brief and helping clients decide what sort of project is best for them, how open are brands and agencies to that more collaborative relationship?

SR> At the moment – and it’s part of the reason that we’re sticking with this virtual reality, augmented reality direction – we come to the table and we are an equal partner with the agency, with the brand. They need us to be the specialists, and that’s a good position to be in because you can have really good conversation. We understand brands and what they want to get out of a project. Whereas with more traditional VFX, we were told ‘you’ve got this job, make it look good’, or even worse, ‘copy the pre-vis’. For us it’s far more positive and we really enjoy it.

By fostering good, trustworthy relationships we have found ourselves in a nice position where the hardware companies are recommending us because we can do the job well, the agencies are recommending us because we can connect them. It’s a good place to be because it’s collaborative – as you know with VFX, you’re just one of 20 quotes and whoever is the cheapest, gets it.

 

LBB> You’re now in a position where you’re having amazing conversation with the leading tech companies in this field. But even with all the insight that gives you, how on earth do you keep up with all of it?

SR> It’s hard, but luckily I love it. If you enjoy what you do, it becomes part of your DNA. Understanding the tech, getting under the skin of it, it’s so interesting. All of it is honestly just an evolution of devices. Even HoloLens runs on Unity, which is what we build our VR experiences on. When we get a new bit of tech, it might take us a day or two to get our heads round what we can do with it, then we’re up and running. It’s not like we go, ‘oh my God, what is this magical box!? What’s it made of, moon dust?’ every time we see something new. I’ve also got a whole company of people like this.

Staying with that, we have shown our worth to various manufacturers because they have needed content for their platforms and devices. HTC is now backing us on one of our pieces of IP. They’re investing in content across the board because they believe in the industry. It’s the same with Oculus, we’re pitching to them at the moment. They all need content.

We’re in that space now where people are coming to us with technology that doesn’t exist yet. For example, there’s the Fove headset that uses eye-tracking technology. We spoke to them over a year ago before they even had a product because they wanted content for their launch demonstration. We came up with a game set in Neo-Tokyo, full of robots, anything we could think of. It was a dream job and we launched it at Tokyo Game Show a few months ago.

We’re so used to working with bespoke new stuff that we’re used to working on projects without the hardware.

LBB> Developing your own IP is interesting as that must potentially change your business model – almost like being a games developer….

SR> It’s a nice place, it’s a pivot – but it’s also dangerous. Being an indie games developer is really hard. You’ve got to make a game, you’ve got to make it sexy, you’ve got to do a huge amount of marketing to cut through the noise, to get it bought, to make your money back. VR at the minute is even worse because you’ve got all these challenges and on top of that there are a limited amount of headsets out there at this moment, this is changing, but in the meantime you’ve either got to sell it really expensively or you’ve got to get it part-funded or part-sponsored by a brand. Or with HTC, they’re putting their money into it and taking the risk.

Outside of that, MIPTV have approached us to help them create a VR area. They believe that people will buy and sell VR content – episodic experiences, apps and games – at their event just as they do with TV series. By then we’ll have three pilots to take there to see if anyone wants to buy them to turn them into a 12 episode thing. But that’s a really dangerous place to live within. I’m trying to get us to 40-60 basically, 40% our own stuff, 60% paid for by other people’.

LBB> I’d love to ask you about Jaguar, which was a social experience that allowed people to interact within the virtual space…

SR> Working with Imagination, we basically made a massive multiplayer online game. We had 54 people in LA all sitting in a horseshoe, wearing headsets. In the virtual world, they could all see each other. And then we brought in another two pods from London and brought those people in. Then there would be a presenter talking them through the design. We basically made a massive multiplayer online game. Once people were in that shared space, we could share that back out again.

We were ready for people to not take part – car journalists are grumpy bastards. But we only had one person say they didn’t want to use it. One of the journalists said it was brilliant, didn’t think they’d be able to see the whole inside of the car, the suspension, the motors. It was described as the future of car launches. We put a bunch of celebs through it too, like James Corden and Jay Leno and Vinnie Jones.

LBB> And high end car brands can be so particular about how you represent their products, so that must have been really tough!

SR> Yes, they’re concerned about what angles you see it from, how you light it. But there was a nice moment when we had the whole car interior cabin design team down at the studio. We showed them the first test and I was worried that they’d hate it. But this woman was inspecting the glove box, and I asked her if we had got all the specifications right. She said that we had, then turned to the team and said, ‘we should change the finish on this’. She was doing design changes on the fly because she had never seen the car in this way before – she’d seen it in CAD and flat images, but not in this 3D way, where it felt like she was in the car.

LBB> As well as these commercial projects, you’re also attracting the really interesting creative projects like the Stonemilker and Notget experiences for Bjork and BBC Spacewalk. That’s the stuff that’s allowing you to experiment…

SR> Space Walk was an R&D brief. When we started off the project, it was going to be a factual documentary but then we got into the meat of it and started exploring how story works in VR. We doubled the budget ourselves by investing our own money into it. The opportunity to work with those guys at the BBC was just phenomenal and when we won The Future of Storytelling Award a few months ago, it all paid off. It felt like we had done something right.

LBB> I’d love to talk to you about augmented and mixed reality, things like HoloLens. I know you’re working on projects in the AR space, so what are your thoughts on it?

SR> Mixed reality headsets are the next logical step for us. It leans on what we’ve done in the past and it opens whole new avenues. I’m beginning to call us a tent pole project company – it’s the never-been-done-before stuff that really gets us going.

HoloLens is an amazing device and it’s the future of where this technology is going to go. HoloLens and the Magic Leap are a completely new way of doing things. They’re the first device we have that can augment human intelligence in real time. With a smart phone, I can find the answer to absolutely anything… but it’s a layer away. We don’t access it that much. If that layer is always on and it’s AI driven, the people who have access to that technology are going to have an advantage over those who don’t. The have and have nots. You get really sci-fi, really quickly!

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LBB> From your point of view, it makes the scope of your work even broader, doesn’t it? It takes you to a more of a problem-solving space, rather than just creating content. The obvious applications of VR are things like entertainment, gaming, education… but when you try HoloLens you just can’t stop thinking about the possible uses.

SR> Totally. Someone asked me what ‘verticals’ it will influence… I was like, ‘all of them!’ There’s stuff we haven’t even thought about yet. It’s great for industrial applications – for example, if you’re on a car production line you can show people how to make things, where to put things, you can show the status of the machinery.

On the entertainment side, it’s a bit expensive for someone to buy one and have it at home now. It’s going to take a little longer to get there. I saw one app being sold on the HoloLens store for £1,500, which takes sketches of architects plans and turns them into a hologram on your desk. If you’re an architect, that saves you so much time and money that it might be worth paying that amount for it.

LBB> And at the other end of the scale, what are your thoughts on 360 video and the more passive experiences?

SR> With 360 video, there are hundreds of little companies doing it, but it’s going to die a death when you get a camera system that doesn’t need any post production to stitch it together.

We got chosen by Google to be a Google Jump approved studio. The camera system takes away the pain because you shoot it, upload it and in three hours you get it back. In the past you’d shoot it and then pay someone for a week to 10 days’ work to make the thing before you could see whether you’d shot it right or think about where to put it. We’re creating a lot more content using that camera system. I’m really chuffed about it, and it’s especially good for shooting charity stuff.

LBB> What sort of charity projects?

SR> I keep saying that VR can change your reality, and it’s really good for building empathy. I’ve got a friend who uses it to treat PTSD in the US army. They come back from war and they’re really messed up from seeing their friends blown up in a market or something.

They build a version of that experience – but it’s a controllable version. They go through it with a counsellor and can dial up the level of realism, slow things down, speed things up. They put you through the experience at different levels to help you deal with it mentally. It means it doesn’t get pushed to the bottom of your mind and then rear back up years later.

I recently volunteered and went to a children’s hospital to make experiences for the sick kids. These little kids that want to run with Usain Bolt or fly an RAF plane but can’t because they’re ill – I’m going to take a camera and go off and get the experiences for them. I feel like finally I’m fixing some of my karma.

 

LBB> Because the technology and platforms are changing so quickly, how challenging is it to find people with the skills and knowledge that you need?

SR> It’s really hard. My thing is hiring people first and then training them. Because of my background in education, I know how to get the best out of people and I can see their personalities swiftly. The thing is, we need generalists and creative problem solvers, not somebody who’s really good at, I don’t know, whisker dynamics. Specialisms don’t really exist for us yet. And if we did bring a specialist in, well, they might not be needed in six months because we’re no longer working in that technology or with that software. I’m pretty lucky with the team I’ve got, but finding more talent to scale is one of the biggest challenges. All of the recruiters we work with are having the same problem: there’s a real gap in the industry.

So much so, that one of our frenemy companies has been through all of my staff trying to poach them! I’ve always made a thing of not doing that to other companies. If someone wants to leave where they are to join us, that’s fine, but I’m not going to go out of my way to torpedo other teams.

It’s really important to keep your morals and support the community. We get a lot of referrals, even from competitors. If they’re busy, they might suggest to a client to come to us. And we’ll do the same. It’s easy to say, but I stand by it and try to put it out into the world.