Having spent their boyhoods running riot in rural Italy as well as in the imaginary dominions of video games, it’s no surprise that Emanuele Paris and Patrick Tomasini have come out the other side of adolescence with a love for immersive multimedia. Now begrudgingly into their late 20s, they are big kids turned founders of Container21; an East London company that specialises in computer-simulated environments that us humans can directly manipulate and manoeuvre through. What’s it like, being tasked with the small feat of developing our future?
Their paths crossed when they became friends back home and then again when they worked at Nexus Productions, a creative firm on Shoreditch High Street that uses the hand-made and the high-tech to craft films and experiences. “Both of us felt this big shift in London and were attracted to do something different,” says Patrick, who did animations for Coke and Honda ads at the agency, while Emanuele took his craft of creating digital effects to movie studios to work on the likes of Harry Potter and Gravity. Eventually, they both flew the nest into a horizon of freelancing, implementing their specialisms individually or cross-expertise in industries as varied as Hollywood, architecture, healthcare, automotive and education.
Emanuele refers to that year of self-employment as an R&D phase; “Once we’d done enough, we decided that it was time to – ” Patrick interjects; “- face the market.” Half a year later, and aside from finishing off each other’s sentences, they are a 50/50 team; “I do the modelling, and texturing,” says Patrick, “and I try to make the stuff he constructs run interactively,” says Emanuele. Okay got it, but what do they actually use their visualising, rendering and programming skills for?
“By putting the Oculus Rift headset on we can transfer you from the place that you are actually in, to another place designed by us,” describes Emanuele, referring to the virtual reality device and developer kit that is sprawled across his desk. As the industry has moved into a second wave, Oculus Rift has been reduced from the inhibitive price of $14000 to very doable $350, opening the market up to start-ups like Container21. “The difference between being in front of a big cinema screen and the virtual reality headset is that it’s stereoscopic; so you see the real depth of things and it tracks your head movements, making it a completely immersive experience.” That means it’s best to be seated when wearing it or you can easily walk into a wall, trust me.
“Augmented reality is slightly different, because it doesn’t isolate a different world, it adds to yours,” he explains, pointing to a mug filled with a third of a beer (we’re sharing, it’s only 4pm). “We can replicate this so that when you look through your iPad, you see a second mug that looks exactly the same and moves in the same way. Essentially it allows us to add extra information on top of your reality – augment it – and use electronic devices as a window into those hidden layers.”
“And an interactive installation basically facilitates the use of technologies without having to go via perceptible elements like a headset, so we can have your hand trace something in the air and see your drawing materialise on a screen.” The guys show me a pretty nifty implementation of this, where I hover my hand over a sensor and am able to control the airplane on the screen in front of me as I try to successfully navigate through some clouds, and fail. This is a leap motion installation; a collaboration with British Airways and award winning studio Framestore for The Great Festival of Creativity in Shanghai this year. My mind is blown, and I feel a pull between excitement and fear over what’s to come, and so do they.
After Google Glass nosedived (due to the $1500 price tag and conspiracies of secret data collection surrounding its unobtrusive design), augmented reality is still finding its feet. Patrick envisions integrating the technology into mainstream education as complementary kinaesthetic learning dynamic, taking kids back in time to explore the Roman Empire or the French Revolution, but he also understands the sentiment that slows its progress; “I think it’s difficult – the best ideas will come from people that don’t know the device because instead of thinking about how it works they will be free to imagine what it could do – and they are the ones who are scared.”
So in the meanwhile Container21 is focussing its efforts largely on virtual reality, which has moved from a developmental stage to integration with advertisement campaigns and engineering plans within a year – not without witnessing its fair share of tantrums. “We had an architect who was like ‘We’ve been doing it the same way for 200 years. Why should I invest in it?’,” admits Emanuele, who in response transformed the guys 2D plans into navigable 3D content and placed him inside his building before it was built; “As soon as he put the headset on, a switch flipped.” Born from the gaming business, creative developers took to the open-source platform, showing the old school of branding what could be done – the ability to morph the wall of perception, intimate depths of field and play with spatial configurations has seen entire industries dragged into the 21st century.
Rapid implementation has meant that much like the Internet, Oculus has very little to no control over best practice or good conventions being applied. “Pornography, casinos – all the worst things that we could find to interact with have been made for the headset,” Patrick expands, setting off Emanuele: “There are people that have literally passed out because they were inside that world and they didn’t realise…” he says, but then reconsiders, “…no, they realised, but they didn’t want to get out.” Levels of graphic comfort and the danger of addiction loom over the future of virtual reality, but Container21 understands that with the effort to pioneer and push in a free license environment, comes the great responsibility of setting oneself standards: “When we first talked about opening a company that would do this, we were like ‘Okay, is this going to be the harbinger of apocalypse?’ But the thing is that we have the luxury of steering things so that they don’t go the way we fear.”
“But then again, absolutely anyone can develop for this because it’s not a secure medium,” he continues, “there is no such thing as a secure technology – If I’m building it, another me can de-build it. After a certain point, it’s just a matter of someone willing to harm or damage others. At that point, it’s not about the actual program or software anymore, it’s just a matter of people.”
So what are their personal dystopias, as the humans behind the machines? “I grew up in a very small town in Italy in the middle of the mountains and I’m very attached to nature,” says Patrick, “so to me the most scary thing is young kids using these technologies. Virtual reality will have the same effect as if you leave a child playing video games or in front of the TV for fifteen hours, maybe it will even be exponential because it’s a screen five centimetres from your eyes. Parents have to regulate.” Emanuele reinforces apprehensions about extreme isolation, but his anxieties about the regression of mankind lie on a subliminal level and therefore make for a graver horror story; “It’s that very primitive fear that human intelligence is going to regress; before smartphones we could recall full names and remember entire numbers, but now?”
Written by Amrita Riat