We speak to the team about the origins of their VR business and its broader ambitions for gaming.
The first time Matthew Martin tried virtual reality, he was gripped. The managing director and co-founder of the Norwich-based creative agency Immersive Studios had visited the home of co-founder and technical director James Burrows in the late 2014 and tried VR experience Don’t Let Go.
This short game asks the player to hold down two computer keys in an empty classroom as a series of unsettling animations play out. Flies swarm, a dinosaur prowls the small room, and knives drop from the ceiling. However, it was the spider that got to Martin. When it crawled onto his virtual avatar’s arm, he could feel the sensation in real life. The experience ended when the spider jumped at the screen – Matt was impressed.
“The effect it had on me, feeling that this stuff was real when it clearly isn’t, that’s the thing that got me thinking, ‘Well, we can use this technology to do some really cool things’,” Martin tells us.
Immersive Studios creates virtual reality, augmented reality and 360-degree video content for a variety of companies and agencies, including training simulations for the oil and gas industry and the education sector, as well as experiences for brands like Hugo Boss, Yamaha, Mazda and Ikea. It has also filmed 360-degree video footage of everything from a Machine Head concert to a West Ham stadium tour, and created virtual tours for universities and the property sector.
Based at the Union Building in Norwich with 15 employees, the idea for Immersive Studios originated during discussions between Martin and Burrows.
“We didn’t want to create another digital [agency] or another creative agency, because Norwich has got quite a few… we wanted to do something different,” Martin explains.
The skills to succeed
Martin left school halfway through his A-levels to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star. However, he found he had a knack for sales and opened his own streetwear clothing store in his early twenties. Although the store closed after Superdry – then named Cult – opened a competing shop in Norwich, the experience was important for Martin.
“It laid the foundations for understanding how to deal with your own business, deal with customers, the sales side. When it’s your thing and you’ve got to make it a success, you really do work a lot harder,” Martin says.
Martin went on to work in radio as a media sales executive, as a publication manager for the B2B magazine Kitchen Journal and as a self-taught freelance graphic designer. While living in France, Martin met Peter Sibley, founder of virtual communications agency wtv., and helped him to establish Media Frontier, a boutique first language English agency operating in the Geneva area.
Martin was initially responsible for onboarding clients, project management and designing websites, apps, videos, animations and print designs alongside his team. The company was successful, generating over CHf 1 million per year in revenue at the time, he says.
“I always sort of see that as a very well-paid internship or apprenticeship” Martin says. “It just did me in good stead for setting up [Immersive Studios] – I knew what to do straight away and how to build a successful team and keep everybody motivated.”
Burrows had previously worked on a VR project for Mazda, while Martin had been working on “cutting edge digital technology” in Switzerland. Together, emboldened by the acquisition of VR company Oculus by Facebook for approximately $2 billion in March 2014 and assisted by £250,000 in start-up capital from a private investor, they took the plunge.
Virtual reality gaming
Fuller is also designing games for XIST, an offshoot company of Immersive Studios that focuses on multiplayer free-roam games in VR, alongside other Immersive staffers. Players can move around a large-scale space – for example, 13x6 metres for the action adventure game Primal Reign – and see each other represented by digital avatars, with the technology tracking their positions and even hand movements. XIST VR has also collaborated with Barclays, participating in the Game Technology Frenzy event held in Canary Wharf, London in January.
XIST plans to launch with a gaming focus, targeting locations like VR arcades, leisure centres and shopping centres, with support from the same private investor that gave Immersive Studios start-up capital. However, Martin also has ambitions for collaborative VR training simulations that would be developed for sectors like the oil and gas industry, firefighters and the military.
Martin and Fuller are particularly excited about XIST, the latest iteration of which Martin aims to launch in about a month. It represents a chance to work on their own IP and products, rather than solely relying on contracted work. Martin even has esports ambitions for one of their in-development games. Fuller described it as a team-based game with a futuristic setting, where players pass a ball around to score goals whilst shooting each other to fight for possession.
Looking forward, Martin is keen to maintain the quality of work being done by Immersive Studios.
“We’ve had challenging times,” he says. “It hasn’t always been upward growth the whole time. Financially, there’s been some difficult periods.”
He points to their first quarter of last year, October to December, as one such period for the company. The studio has also had to adapt to working from home due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, they’ve been “busier over the last few months than we’ve ever been historically at this time of year.”
“So many organisations have had to look at ways to adapt. How can they change what they’re doing or what they would normally do physically?” Martin says, pointing to the events industry in particular. “We’re delivering tools to them that are enabling them to continue – it’s not like we’re benefiting from the situation as such, it’s more we’re helping other companies to grow and survive.”
Although we’re all hoping for an end to the pandemic, Martin already has his eye on a bright future, particularly with XIST.
“If we could spend all day every day building video games as a company then sure, that’s definitely what we would do. That’s where XIST comes in... If we can sell enough systems, that will create enough recurring revenue to support the team just making the content for the systems and that’s where I’d love to get to with it. You’re building stuff for fun then.”