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Stefan Muirhead

Stefan Muirhead

Every digital agency has a set of services they sell. Deciding what you'll offer out of the gate is always tricky. Do you base it on what the team is passionate about or what clients are willing to pay for? Maybe both. Regardless, over time the needs and capabilities of digital products will force every shop to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant. Web standards, content strategy, mobile and responsive were several of the changes that dictated the success of a digital agency. So what's the next wave? For Stefan Muirhead and the team at Ignition 72, it's Virtual Reality.

Carl Smith:
Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. It's Carl, and with me today I have Stefan Muirhead from Ignition 72, and they have recently launched a new service, and when I heard about it I was like all right, I've got to talk to Stefan about this, because this is just ... It's blowing my mind.

How are you doing, Stefan?

Stefan Muirhead:
I'm doing great, thanks. How about you, Carl?

Carl Smith:
Doing great. And you know, we chatted just a little bit before this, and you mentioned something while you were talking that truly, truly got me thinking. You know, when I was running Engine, I remember we started ... We were a flash shop. Flash was the rage, and then things moved to standards-based, and so we went standards-based. Then you had this wave of SEO/SEM and how important that was, and then you had responsive, you know, years later. But it was these waves of things that we would adopt, right? And people always ... For the most part, SEO got like a bad rep. But you decided, now I think you mentioned this was like late last year or early this year, to move into virtual reality.

And I've just got to ask you, how do you make that decision, to dive in somewhere, when it really seems like most, and I hate to say traditional digital shops because it sounds ridiculous, but most people who've been doing web sites and apps; how do you make that decision? That you're going to dive into virtual reality?

Stefan Muirhead:
So I think this actually in my particular case was a foregone conclusion that was determined in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. I'm an avid sci-fi reader. Guys like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Iain M. Banks [crosstalk 00:01:44]

Carl Smith:
Snowcrash, man. Snowcrash. I know that guy.

Stefan Muirhead:
Right? And Snowcrash, it's the story of hero protagonist, the greatest samurai in the universe, who delivers pizzas as a day job for the Mafia.

Carl Smith:
That's right! On a skateboard that he took under semis and stuff.

Stefan Muirhead:
Exactly. It's a dystopian future that I'm prepared to sign up for immediately. And as a kid, I moved a lot, and I was constantly kind of reinventing myself, and these books presented a world where that idea of reinvention had limitless boundaries. It was something that had no kind of limitations, and I really got excited.

In the 90s there was some early implementations of VR that were guaranteed to make you sick. In the early 2000s you had some, what are they called, arcades, had some VR games. And then it all kind of went dark, and you know we started to see pieces of VR, the X-Box Connect for example. You know[inaudible 00:02:51][crosstalk 00:02:51]

Carl Smith:
Yeah.[crosstalk 00:02:51]

Stefan Muirhead:
Gloom, and then you had the Wii motion controllers, which was trying to figure out input devices when space is you know your input device. 

And so last year in March, the first VR headsets that were really technically viable, the screens are high res enough, the processes are fast enough, the band width and so forth is big enough; came out, and I said to my wife you know, "I have to do this. It's driving me."

And I actually, what I did was I sold my motorcycle and bought a VR headset. And that's how I kind of demonstrated to her how serious I was, because I'd driven a motorcycle for 25 years, and to trade in my motorcycle for VR was kind of a statement of commitment in our house.

Carl Smith:
You traded one passion for another. And to say that the reason that Ignition 72 goes into virtual reality is passion? Well I can get behind that.

Stefan Muirhead:
Yeah. No, and it is. And I think that's one of the key things is ... So what I've started doing was just demoing the tech, right? One of the cool things about being at the dawn of a new medium is everybody is going to give you heaps of credit that you don't deserve. There'll be a direct association. You know, I had the first I Phone, and you wouldn't believe how many people thought I had created that. Showing it to them, it's magic, it's an Arthur C. Clark quote, you know "Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic."

And with VR, what we started doing as a company was saying okay, why don't we get together with a whole bunch of partners and clients, and let's just show them the tech. Let's just show them and confirm to them that it's real. Let's build something where we can take them away someplace completely different. And we even did some charitable engagements to see how it works. You know, we did a day at Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital right after Christmas, where we let the kids use VR, and we let them escape the hospital a little while.

And it's been amazing just seeing the reactions of people. We've done over 600 demos in the last year, and 100% of them people are sold, they buy into it, they believe it, they feel presence. And so that's constantly been fueling us, in that every time we share this technology with somebody, they walk away with a big smile on their face, they've had a genuine experience, they want to talk about it. It's that enthusiasm. And you know, I keep remarking to people, "Imagine you just had a friend who woke up from a 20-year coma, and you got to show them what the internet was today." Right?

Carl Smith:
Right.

Stefan Muirhead:
Where would you even ... It is so exciting with YouTube and Netflix, and there's so much! VR is kind of like that at the moment, because ultimately my personal belief is that VR is just a state in the evolution of the screen. We had a conversation internally in preparation for this podcast, and I was talking to some of my team members here, and I said to them as far as I'm concerned, we as professional digital people work in an environment that has three primary components.

We have the computer, which is where all our code and all our data is stored. We have the content, which is the objective and the goal of having the computer. Ultimately content is what drives everything. And then you have the screen, right? And the screen is the interface through which we access that content.

I can use my screen in a monochrome format, I could have big green letters on a black background. You and I have used computers like that. I could have a 64K screen, I could have a 1024, I could have a 4K screen. They're all just screens. Well VR is a continuation of that evolution, where the screen is now wrapped around your head, it has full depth perception, and it can completely transform where you are.

And so the question that I would have for anybody in our industry, you know, sort of the web, digital interactive spaces is, is your alignment with the content, in which case that's a perfectly great alignment. Is your alignment with the computer? I think we can all relate to that.

Me personally? I have no loyalty to this flat piece of plastic [inaudible 00:07:20][crosstalk 00:07:20] that's the screen. It's the content on the computer that get me excited. So I'm psyched that the screens are getting smarter and better, finally.

Carl Smith:
So when you make this decision, and you've got a couple of partners, I believe. I think your Dad is actually one of your partners, right?

Stefan Muirhead:
Yes. So we have ... So there's four managing partners here at Ignition; myself, Joe, who's our lead developer, Chris, who runs operations, and then Stefan my Dad, who is responsible for all finance, legal, and cracking skulls when partner's skulls need to be cracked.

Carl Smith:
So how do you bring this to them? Because I get the feeling that's what happened. I mean, if you're selling your motorcycle, you're like look, we've got to do this, how do you present this to them?

Stefan Muirhead:
So it actually started as exactly what I said before, just getting them to try it out. I have over 200 VR experiences, and one of the tricky things is finding something that an individual is going to connect with. If you hate painting, me putting you into a painting program isn't going to win you over. And so I carefully gave each of them a demo that really played into their particular interests.

So for my father, for example, he's a huge World War II buff; we stuck him in a battle in World War II.

Carl Smith:
Nice.

Stefan Muirhead:
You know, he had to jump out of an airplane at night over Amsterdam and take out an anti-aircraft gun.

Carl Smith:
Oh, God.

Stefan Muirhead:
It blew his mind. And so then it was ... I kind of snuck up on them in that this was me being a weirdo, and embracing the technology, and once everybody was "Okay, yeah, this is great stuff and this is really good, how is it relevant to us?" I basically said to them look, I'd like a budget of X amount of dollars, literally you know tiny amounts of money, so that I can build something that we can really demo to people.

And I think that's one of the key things is for us to build something ... I need to qualify. I am not a developer. I am a new business guy, I am a writer, I am a project manager, but we have an animator on our team here at Ignition, who was like "Oh, God, anything I can animate, I can build in 3D. I will figure this out. We're going to do this."

And so Nick, who's our animator and now 3D specialist, and I basically sat down with some manuals and started figuring out how can we reuse assets and pieces and things that we've used for client projects and past projects, to shortcut the effort to create a custom experience?

And so that's what we did was we commissioned and the company paid for and built our first project, so that we could show that to prospective clients. And say "Look, this is how much it's going to cost, this is how we planned it." We literally have a full kind of walk-through of professionalizing VR for commercial uses.

Carl Smith:
And that's totally the way to do it. You know, I mean we met at Owner Camp Chicago, and the thing I've heard again and again, through all of the different camps, and also I experienced at Engine was, if you want to do something and nobody's hiring you to do it, you do it for yourself. Right, you build it, and then you make it look like, if it's for somebody else or whatever, that's totally fine. But you have to create it so you can show it.

Now you've got a lot of government clients, I'm guessing, because you're there in Baltimore. So how did you approach your existing clients? Or did you just go for new clients?

Stefan Muirhead:
So we are doing both. It's amazing the people who've come out of the woodwork when they hear that we're using VR for business. We are talking with a huge multinational furniture company who want to build a virtual showroom where they can have every piece of furniture they make in one place.

Carl Smith:
It's going to be a long virtual walk.

Stefan Muirhead:
It's a big, big room. And they are partnered with a multinational architectural firm who would love to bring the multi-million dollar condo to the guy in Saudi Arabia, instead of needing to bring the guy from Saudi Arabia to the construction site. And so there are some industries that really do lend themselves very well to this space. 

And government is usually a little bit behind in that regard, but where our government clients have expressed interest is training. If you can create training situations where I would otherwise need to fly someone someplace, or put them up in a hotel for a week or something like that.

In fact, we're working with a company here that builds highways. They are interested in building a VR training module for their staff, that would teach them what to look out for and what to avoid, without ever needing to send them out onto a highway.

Carl Smith:
Wow.

Stefan Muirhead:
So it's really a question of, if we go back to what I was saying before, it's a screen, right? VR is just a really sophisticated screen. The content still requires that inspiration, because you can take a crap story and stick it in VR and now it's a crap VR story. VR isn't going to make something good. But it can take something that's good and make it great.

Carl Smith:
So I had not even thought about this angle. Not even angle, but this possibility. That sounded horrible. Let me tell you about this angle for selling VR.

No, but the possibility that you're saving, first of all, I mean just thousands and thousands of hours, right? You're saving expense in terms of fuel and transportation, and you're helping the climate, and you're doing all these types of things by allowing people who normally would have to be on location to get trained, to do it virtually.

And I'm sure there'll be some skeptics, and they probably have some valid points. Well if you're not truly walking on the highway or driving down the highway, you're not going to notice it, but as a first step or even as ongoing education, it feels like it has huge potential. 

And so ... And I understand what you're saying about the government being a few steps behind, but it feels like when it does catch on, especially from a training perspective, that market's going to explode.

Stefan Muirhead:
Oh, it's already ... Look, the government is both behind and always leaving the fray, if you will. The people who've been using VR in the government have been using it for years, and they are our Air Force. Pilot training and those kinds of things. Now when you go through comprehensive pilot training, they do include many, many hours in VR in a full kind of cockpit. And what they do, is they have you practice things you would never practice in real life, like crashing your plane, right? How to land your F-16 with no landing gear.

Carl Smith:
Save a couple of billion dollars a month there.

Stefan Muirhead:
Exactly. But I think you're right, you have to find the problem where VR can help solve and be part of the solution. 

Another client that we're currently in negotiations with is a client who does a huge trade show circuit in the US. They go to six to eight trade shows a year, and their booth weighs 17 tons. And so imagine, and if you've been in the industry, you've probably been to a fair number of trade shows. First of all, that's a lot of teamsters and that's an awful lot of expensive carrying of boxes. But transporting 17 tons of equipment from state to state, and it's just this never-ending kind of circle, is a huge cost.

If I can recreate that for them in VR, we will literally knock 16 tons off of their freight, which is going to hit the bottom line right away.

Carl Smith:
All right. So you make the decision, and you start creating some stuff for yourself. You start demoing it to your partners, to your team, to your clients. You start getting some clients. Now you get caught up in doing the work. How do you stay up to speed with the technology? Because you know, and I heard this phrase a long time ago, leading versus reading? And I think it's a shitty phrase, because I think you have to be reading in order to be leading, right? You have to understand what's going on.

But how do you stay up to speed? It's got to be moving at a crazy pace.

Stefan Muirhead:
Well, I don't have kids, so I am the kid, and this is ...

Carl Smith:
No, you answered the question. You're good. Moving on ... No, I'm just kidding. Keep going.

Stefan Muirhead:
But I think part of it is also our methodology as it related to the web was also the same as our methodology as it relates to VR. And that is, we're not as interested in invention. We're more interested in standing behind the inventor and figuring out how you can take it and turn it into a business tool.

And so there's a fragmentation that's already happening in VR. You have the oculist camp, and then you have the steam camp, and then you have the phone powered headsets, and so that fragmentation allows us to focus on a specific area. And we're not building hardware. The software is free. Unity, you can get it for free. Unreal Engine, you can get it for free. You only have to pay them if you start generating revenue using their software, which is incredible.

And so what we do is just try and find those things that continue to be relevant and will help our clients. So always thinking about that from a client-centric perspective; how do I make use of these tracking pucks, for example. They now have pucks that you can attach to anything in VR, so that that object can have presence in VR. You could attach it to a beer can, and now you can find your beer while you're in VR.

Carl Smith:
Wait a second. Are you watching me? Is my camera on?

Stefan Muirhead:
I can see what you're doing. I'm in VR right now, in fact. I'm the stuffed animal on your bookshelf behind you. 

So no, and when you're passionate about something, I think it makes it really easy to kind of keep up with it. Because I'm excited to get home at night and spend another hour or two reading and understanding what's happening. I'm not yet tired of it, and it's you know 14, 16 months into it.

And the more I expose other people to it, the more enthusiasm I get, and it's just really kind of a snowball, where I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe that the kid who read Neuro mantra and Snowcrash when he was in 8th grade, is now actually wearing that headset and doing that stuff.

Carl Smith:
So I'm a gamer. I get the feeling you're probably a gamer.

Stefan Muirhead:
Oh, yeah.

Carl Smith:
Oh, yeah. And I haven't jumped into the PS4's virtual stuff yet. I didn't make this jump to the X-Box 1. I used to be every platform I was staying up. I ended up on the PS4 this time. I've heard pluses, I've heard minuses, you know all this kind of stuff on the consumer side. Do you think that the video game world is going to lead this revolution into the consumer space? Or do you think it could be more on the business side, what you're working on?

Stefan Muirhead:
It's going to be both. And so I come from a little bit of a gaming pedigree, if that is even a thing.

Carl Smith:
I like that, I like that a lot.

Stefan Muirhead:
My Dad, who is our CFO, used to be the CEO of a tiny little games company called Micropros. And he and a guy named Sidney [crosstalk 00:19:06] Yeah. They created civilizations and x-com and all that kind of stuff. And there are a lot of game companies that are getting into VR now, EA is getting in on it and so forth.

Anyone who's getting in on VR, though, is taking a gamble, because it's still early days, and they're investing in the future. And so as much as I dislike Facebook and Oculus for whatever random reasons, they are funding the ecosystem, and they're going out to triple A games developers and saying "Hey, we'll give you a million dollars if you make us a three million dollar game for VR," and that will offset the risk and the potential loss. Other companies like Bethesda, they're taking existing IT and they're converting it so that it can be used in VR. And that's much less of an investment.

So those companies are definitely going to be a part of this. It's definitely happening. And what's happened is the market has really focused on the enthusiast first. So you've got Steam and Oculus, they're really focusing on gaming, and they are the kind of ultimate systems. You have 360 degree movement, and it's called room scale, and you can wander around a room and do your VR standing.

Microsoft just launched two VR headsets, they both cost less than 350 bucks, and they are meant for sitting at a desk and working. And they will allow you ... They're called mixed reality headsets, you'll be able to press a button, and you'll be able to see your keyboard and your desktop and everything in front of you, and then you press another button, and you'll be in a full 360 immersion version of Windows.

Imagine if Windows wasn't just a flat desktop, but it was a house. And in this room you've got all your movies, and in this room you've got all your Excel files, and in this room you've got all your Word docs, and in here you've got the web. They're trying to take what has been such a flat thing, which is Windows, and turn it into that full 360 experience, so that you can take VR and turn it into a productivity tool.

Carl Smith:
So ... All right. I'm like ... Don't make we want to reboot Engine, because you're like, you're killing me right now. So what do you think happens, two years, three years, five years from now? Like are you starting to see ... You already mentioned that just by going around and demoing stuff, you're starting to get that reputation at Ignition. You're investing in it, you're passionate about it, do you think this is the kind of thing that could take the company full time into virtual reality?

Stefan Muirhead:
I don't know. You know, it's funny, my partners I think, two of them at least have said to me "Wow, you might without realizing it have completely reinvented who we are." I don't know if I'm short-sighted, or I'm just hoping to get through tomorrow. That hasn't been my goal and that hasn't been my focus. Funnily enough, I've kind of flipped it on its head, and I have this kind of analogy that I've been explaining to people. And this is the way I've kind of looked at it.

And that is, 250 years from now, right, so in what is it, 2267, an eight year old boy in class is studying contemporary computer science history. And it's a middle school class, it's just talking about the invention of the computer, and that kind of stuff. It all happened 250 years ago. I wonder how long they're going to spend talking about screens. Because 250 years from now, everything is going to be a hologram or a virtual or an augmented or a something. 

The screen is really the means to an end that gets us where we need to go. But it's not the long term solution. It's kind of ... I feel the exact same way about the Toyota Prius. Like the Toyota Prius is making a valuable contribution in the evolution of transportation, but it's a stepping stone. It's certainly not the final destination, the culmination of the technologies. 

So this kid, 250 years from now, he'll be sitting there reading with his google goggles on or whatever.

Carl Smith:
It'll be implants. I've watched Black Mirror.

Stefan Muirhead:
Yeah, exactly. The iPhone that's actually in your eye.

Carl Smith:
Oh.

Stefan Muirhead:
Yeah. That's a scary one. That's a ... What's that cartoon, Futurama. To them, it's going to be like what I was saying before. It's going to be about the computer, it's going to be about the content, it's not going to be about the screen.

Carl Smith:
Yeah. The screen will seem weird.

Stefan Muirhead:
The screen will seem ... Yeah. And that's one of the things I'm looking forward to. Like even five of 10 years from now, I'm looking forward to people coming over to my house and looking at my old VR headset and being like "Holy crap! You used to strap that big black box to your head?" And it's like "Yeah, I did."

"And it has a tail like this huge long tether?" "Yes it does."

The evolution's going to happen so fast, and so fluidly, we won't even really notice it. But 250 years from now no one's going to be talking about "Oh, yeah, man you remember those 4K screens or the smart TVs?"

No. All that stuff is going to go away, everyone will have their own headset, we'll be anti-social as hell, but we'll all be beautiful and where ever we want to be.

Carl Smith:
It will be a new form of being social. Just like collaborative gaming, right? I remember I had a friend who, his kid was so deep into ... I can't remember which game it was, but it was one of the war games. Anyway, he was so deep into it ... It might have been Call of Duty. And he was like "I wanted him socializing and he wouldn't socialize, so I made him get off his X-box, and I made him go out with me places."

I was like "Dude, he was socializing. Like you don't understand, he was playing with like six friends. And you're not going to drive him over to their house, so you just really screwed up." Don't you get it. And I'm 49, so I come from a generation I think that had that Atari, the first one, and these different things. A lot of people decided they had to grow up or whatever, but when you realize ...

Like I've got a good friend now that we're just now getting into playing Destiny, because we both been going through some stuff, we understand each other pretty well, so we're just sitting there trying to save a couple planets while we help each other out.

Stefan Muirhead:
That's awesome.

Carl Smith:
You know? And that's the thing, so ...

Stefan Muirhead:
And you know what, and so what I like about VR and that social scene is that you have that shared experience. Whereas right now you're both in your own kind of environments, and you don't exactly see ... You see the same things, but it's bracketed by your monitor. When you're in the full space, that sense of presence extends to the presence with another human being. They are no more than an avatar in a video or a voice or whatever, but it's just hard to explain. When you're with a group of people in VR, you really are there, and you feel that sense of comradery, you do things together.

And there are some wonderful games that are Dungeons and Dragons-esque, and you know, explore and complete these tasks, that really show I think what collaborative gaming and VR is going to do.

But I do have a horrible confession, and that horrible confession is I come from a guy who made video games for a living, I've played video games all my life. Like I first got an Olivetti 286, and my father ... This is the Ferrari of computers. We have 4 Mgs of Ram and a 400 megabyte hard drive. Yeah, this thing was blazing.

I played every video game I could get my hands on, and as soon as I got VR, I stopped playing video games. I have not fired up Call of Duty or Battlefield 4 or any Halo property or anything. Ever since I started playing VR games, I have no enthusiasm for using an X-Box controller and controlling a little character on the screen, because I have been that character. I have seen the explosions right in front of me and the aliens and zombies and whatnot.

And it's kind of like once you've driven in a Ferrari, driving your Ford Escort just seems so blah, like I just haven't been able to play 2D video games anymore.

Carl Smith:
Oh Stefan, I thank you for being here today, but I get the feeling my wife won't. Because I think I'm about to spend a whole lot of money on virtual reality.[crosstalk 00:27:50]

Just so I can see the work you're doing.

Stefan Muirhead:
Yeah, you should come on down to Baltimore. Next time you're anywhere nearby. And I encourage anyone who's listening. The enthusiasm you'll see is real. We are not looking to sell you something. If you want to come on in and stop by Ignition 72 and try out some VR, we'd be happy to set that up. You can try out some stuff we've built, or some stuff we've acquired. And you're right, your wife will not be happy.

Carl Smith:
Well thank you so much for being with us today, and best of luck to you and the team. I look forward to checking in in a few months and seeing how things are going.

Stefan Muirhead:
Excellent. I look forward to sharing with you.

Carl Smith:
Great. And everybody listening, don't be afraid to try something new. Especially if you're really passionate about it. We'll talk to you soon.

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