From emotion sensing technology to VR and holograms, the rapid evolution of technology is revolutionising the delivery of experiential live brand activations, whether it be product launches or initiatives at venues and outdoor events.
With the current generation being the most broadcast in history, and the competition for people’s time being immense, it means creative agencies are having to work harder than ever to find new and interesting ways to encourage consumers to immerse themselves in brands.
Experiential creative agency Smyle has an impressive portfolio of work for major brands, having created a remarkably diverse array of activations including virtual 3D worlds using Unreal Engine, Stormzy performing live on the River Thames and the creation of a sustainably designed two-story Facebook pavilion at Davos.
Smyle innovation director Matt Margetson founded the agency in 1996 and has since seen technology transform the delivery of projects. While being passionately interested in the fast-moving world of technology, Margetson is eager to emphasise that tech alone is useless unless there is a very good reason to use it.
“A lot of people get very excited about widgets but if they don’t really resonate within the story, the objectives, the strategy and creative approach, it’s irrelevant,” he says. “The best thing we do is when it all comes together, combining crafts, skills, teams, and bringing in visionaries using bleeding-edge tech while being open to analogue as well, then fusing it all together in an innovative way to really capture the imagination of the audience.”
Among Smyle’s current projects is an activation that will be positioned under the Eiffel Tower for the Paris Olympic Games next year. Created for a luxury watch manufacturer, Margetson says it is not simply about trying to sell watches but also telling the story of timekeeping and why it is so important in key moments in sport.
The experience begins as people queue for the Tower, with an engagement activation involving geolocation and AR tech, and Smyle’s focus on gamification will see the delivery of a series of immersive activations including a 50 metre running track enabling visitors to compete against Olympic athletes.
Says Margetson, “We wanted to have a competition where they can run against any athlete from the past 100 years of the Olympic or Paralympic Games. They pick their MetaHuman, who will appear on an XR Wall next to them and then get on the blocks and run against them. We have a wire cam tracking them as they go down the track, and that footage then goes into Unreal Engine. The visitor gets a beautiful little vignette of a film, think Hollywood trailer. The aim is, of course, to get the activation to a wider audience, and that kind of high value asset is highly shareable.”
Talent for AI
AI has very much been the buzz acronym of 2023, and, unsurprisingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making considerable impact on the way agencies are bringing brand activations to life. Margetson says that among the many advantages of AI is the ability to make best use of the limited available time with featured ‘talent’.
“We are using AI to create conversational media so that people are able to engage with talent virtually via lifelike representations on screen. They can ask a question, and we work out what the best answer is instantly, it’s almost like they’re in front of you. After a minute or so, it is like you’re having a proper conversation with that person, and it becomes shareable.”
Margetson says that the use of AI is also opening up possibilities to broaden the accessibility of activations and events to people who may have previously been hindered by disabilities.
“We are very focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, and what we’re finding is the use of technology can help to provide more equitable experiences for people regardless of physical disability, language differences, and even things like extrovert/introvert dynamics.
“Events are typically designed for extroverts. If someone is an introvert or on the neurodiversity spectrum that can mean them being quite an unpleasant or at least unwelcoming experience. Technology can help. For example, we can use matchmaking technology to help people connect with one another, even if they’re not an extrovert. We can use geofencing technology to pair up people who should be having a chat but wouldn’t normally because they’re too reserved to go up and just introduce themselves to someone. Their mobile device can ping them and say, ‘You’re standing really close to Matt right now, he and you have several shared characteristics. You guys should have a chat.’ That can help people to overcome that introvert/extrovert dynamic.”
Margetson says AI is also being used for automatic live translation of content, which enables captioning of content on mobile devices, which also helps people who are hearing impaired: “We’re bringing that into the event space to make it more accessible for everybody.”
The delivery of branded experiences and events are now not only more accessible and immersive than ever, they are also becoming more personalised. Emotion sensing technology is increasingly being used to monitor how a crowd is collectively responding to environments, content and situations.
Says Margetson, “Emotion sensing involves facial analysis, and they’re even tapping into smartwatches to analyse what different pulse rates mean. The use of data in a live environment to measure the impact of an event or activation is skyrocketing. That used to be done via an end-of-event survey, now what we’re trying to do is integrate data capture moments within an experience. So, it could be a pop-up question that comes up on a mobile device, motion sensing technology looking at people’s facial expressions or monitoring crowd movement through an environment to understand where pinch points are. That use of data is really helping us all, hopefully, optimise experiences to make them better for audiences and get a real sense of whether we are delivering what we want it to.”
Brad Harris, senior creative director at global creative communications group DRPG has spent more than 16 years shaping events and experiential activations including the award-winning BT Consumer Live; an experience-led, immersive exhibition.
He says making personalisation ethical is key to securing buy-in from attendees: “It is all about being upfront and speaking in the language of a human being, not a data scientist, to let people know what information we are using and that we’re going to get rid it at the end of the use case for it.
“AI is an incredible tool, one of the coolest things I’ve seen so far is a personalised assistant that knows you by name, knows your quirks, and what you will want to know at a particular time. You’ll be able to walk up to screens at the event, and cameras will capture who you are and deliver personalised information.”
Ed Hallam is creative director at Amplify, which has worked on impactful and immersive activations for global brands including Lego, Nike, Netflix and PlayStation, to name but a few. As head of innovation at the agency, Hallam is currently focusing heavily on AI, and how audience behaviour can become an integral aspect of an activation and/ or performance.
“We are exploring how to use AI to create brand worlds, there is an infinite number of ways for brands to come to life through machine learning. We are looking at the way in which we can make the physical and digital worlds bleed closer together, and we have been running innovation sprints and building our own prototypes to explore what the future of these things could be.”
Among the many interesting areas Hallam and his team are investigating is the co-creation of music using AI in a live event environment.
“What I’m finding interesting is the way that we can use AI to allow for mass audience participation in a brand or an artist’s story,” he says. “For example, if a musician wants to find new ways of creating music with the audience involved, we’ve built an AI model that can transform a live gig venue space into another instrument, so the way that people move through the space creates new melodies and sonic experiences. It can be used for large-scale performances, but also immersive theatre or other ways when you might want the creation of custom sonic storytelling through a space.
“That’s been a really exciting area for us, looking how AI can help guide an artist or brand’s vision or story. It explodes the idea of what audience participation looks like.”
Event agency Identity has not only worked with major global brands but has also partnered with the UK Government on landmark events including the G7 Summit in Cornwall and COP26 in Glasgow. Among its recent projects was the AI Safety Summit.
The agency’s digital creative director Michael Naman specialises in delivering creative user experiences across the digital and physical worlds. At the AI Safety Summit, Naman and his team used generative AI to create artworks illustrating famous people in the history of AI.
As AI evolves, one of the uses he expects to see is human and AI-generated beings interacting with each other on stage: “You could have a speaker on stage and what they are saying could be fed into generative AI that creates images on the fly that support what they’re speaking about. The message comes alive and the imagery is completely reactive to what’s being said.”
In the live entertainment environment, Naman believes it could get to the point where AI generated artists are performing AI generated music on stage. While he believes data will underpin all aspect of live events, Naman says it is important not to get too carried away with the idea of AI having infinite possibilities.
“AI is going to really help make live events more accessible, and it will make them more engaging, but often new tech doesn’t quite match up to the hype, and I think brands are aware of that.”
DRPG recently partnered with Holoplot, a company that is taking the audio experience at events to another level, with a speaker system able to project sound to very precise locations in a venue. Among the projects involving Holoplot’s tech is the $1.8 billion, recently opened, MSG Sphere arena in Las Vegas.
“These speakers are mind blowing,” says Harris. “It’s got to be the best technology I’ve seen in 15 years. With one speaker cabinet, you can direct sound to individuals within a one-foot radius. It means we can blast audio directly to the individuals in that room in the language they want to hear it and not affect the person sat next to them.”
With sustainability being a priority for the organisation, DRPG recently celebrated becoming B Corp certified after 18 months spent working toward the accreditation.
“Sustainability is at the heart of the business, it’s something we’ve been focusing on for decades and is instilled in us as a production team,” says Harris.
Technological developments with equipment such as drones has enabled DRPG to make major changes in the way it operates, including the recent closure of its CMD (Corporate Media Displays) arm responsible for pyrotechnics, fireworks and large outdoor displays.
Instead of pyrotechnics and fireworks, which release many contaminants that contribute to climate change, including carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, the company is focusing on drone displays and projection mapping.
Better Green Productions (BGP), an arm of the Better Green Group, works across experiential marketing, event exhibitions and roadshows. Jointly helmed by husband-and-wife duo Dee and Edward Parsons, the company has demonstrated a commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. Working with leading brands, BGP has created activations at events including Reading Festival, Wireless Festival, Royal Ascot and the Eurovision Song Contest.
BGP’s many brand activations during the summer event season this year included the Pepsi Max Tower, which has become a landmark at Festival Republic’s Reading and Wireless Festivals and was doubled in size this year to 300sqm over three floors.
In line with BGP’s focus on sustainability, at least 50% of the tower’s construction involved previously used materials. Meanwhile, 550 trees were planted in Indonesia and the UK, while three outreach projects received a percentage of funding from Better Green’s bottom line from the project.
The company’s wider environmental commitment includes planting 30,000 trees by 2027, and to make sure less than 5% of all waste materials from its projects go to landfill.
While advancing technology is being embraced by brands, event operators and agencies alike, Dee says there are some cases where she is seeing a move away from the high-tech to more hands-on physicality in brand activations: “Some of our clients are going completely the other way, we were back to doing things like drawing messages on boards at some of the summer festivals this year.”
Despite an analogue approach suiting some activations, BGP’s directors regularly team with partners to introduce cutting-edge tech to enable immersive engagement within activations. Edward says, “We got asked a lot last year to design things for companies that affected all six senses, not least smell, sound and vision, and because sustainability is so high on the agenda, we are seeing new tech used to reduce the carbon footprint of activations but also to involve and educate participants.
“For projects we are working on next year we are getting asked a lot for things like pedometers and kinetic dancefloors, things that involve people in the creation of power and give back to the grid.”
Democratisation of tech
Margetson says a huge shift in the availability and accessibility of tech is leading to innovation happening en masse across the industry, transforming the way projects and events are being created and managed.
“Many of these tools have been democratised,” he says. “Some were previously reserved for Hollywood but now motion control is at our fingertips, we are using bulk cams and robot arms on activations, which previously wouldn’t have happened. Innovation is everywhere, it’s ubiquitous, and I think success in this area is very much about collaboration.”
Harris says the roll-out of 5G is having a transformative impact on what can be achieved in a live events environment, not least brand activations, by enabling ample connectivity with AI-driven tech: “Going back five years, 5G was a myth and now it’s everywhere. The possibilities it brings are endless, we’re on the brink of amazing developments. I believe AI is going to transform everything.”