Dissecting the Art of Technology with Future Colossal's CEO

Posted by Samantha Stallard on August 23, 2017
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Pop2Life partner, Future Colossal, is extreme. Extremely creative, extremely passionate, extremely artistic, and extremely innovative. They're the kind of team that can listen to a description of a never-been-done-before, seemingly impossible, out there idea and respond with, "Yeah, we can do that." From digitally altering every car on a busy Manhattan street to creating artificially intelligent, interactive window displays, their team of designers, technologists, hardware fabricators, and coders has literally invented the technology needed to pull off a project when it didn't already exist.

Based in NYC, the self-described "experiential innovation lab" creates immersive experiences for commercial and artistic purposesAlways using the latest technologies, Future Colossal's concepts are compelling, garnering both on the ground attention as they pop up around the country and love from agencies and industry awards (including a Cannes Lions!). If you haven't seen one in action, you've certainly read about them the next day.

I had the opportunity to interview Future Colossal's CEO & Creative Director, Jake Lee-High, to discuss the history of the company, the art of technology, some of the coolest experiences they've ever executed, and why no one gets promoted because of a successful web banner.

Tell us the Future Colossal story. How did the company begin?
The story of Future Colossal is intertwined with my own story. Originally, I was an architect designing homes and small casinos out west while simultaneously creating large-scale art installations that redefined entire galleries. In one of those installations, I had a single channel of sound and was really blown away by how it changed the entire space. So, I started playing with sound as a spacial medium, ultimately building an 132 channel sound system that simulated a rainstorm around museum visitors as they moved through the installation. At the time, no sound systems could handle that many channels, so I started learning about electronics to build it myself, quickly realizing that computer programming is a lot faster than soldering, and fell in love with technology.
From there, I shut down my architecture business to focus on commercializing my art. My brother is a poet, so we sat down together and for weeks analyzed the new company's mission and the important words and phrases around our vision to come up with a name. Future Colossal seemed to sum it all up.  We explore future technologies and have large ambitions.  Our projects make an impact and stay in people mind for years to come. For our logo, we represent the origin of a ray— this is a romantic mathematical concept.  A ray is a line that starts at one point and extends infinitely. The start of infinity represents where we are today and the colossal future ahead of us. 
Future Colossal was formed under the mission to create engaging brand experiences using all of these different technologies, while still maintaining a focus on art for all of our commercial work. We have a talented team of developers, designers, 3D modelers, and project managers that have pushed Future Colossal’s vision beyond my own. We like to think everything is possible. Our team is great at problem solving and getting to the core of a concept within the client’s budget. 
What drew you into such an artistic world?
My father’s a museum director. As a child, we moved around every two to three years, so the only real consistencies in my life were family and art. Since art was always apart of my life, going into architecture was my way of rebelling while allowing me to support myself. Then, moving to New York and being surrounded by the advertising industry I saw a real need for technology and interactivity with consumers. Instead of forcing a marketing message on them, we’re giving them the gift of an experience.
In the early days of Future Colossal, how did you market the business?
Initially, we let the technology speak for itself. About five years ago, there was a need for this, but no one knew where to go for it or how to approach it. Technology activations are risky investments for a brand and I was spending a lot of my time holding our clients hands through the process until they felt comfortable taking these risks.
The first major project we did was with BMW — we turned all of the cars on NYC’s Sixth Avenue into BMWs by virtually removing the real car and replacing them with BMWs in real time. It earned a ton of press, won advertising awards, and lead to future work because it proved how successful these activations can be and how much of a reach they can have. People who had never been to New York had heard about us and the campaign, proving that even though these interactive experiences are local in nature they have a much broader reach.
We show who we are and what our passion is. Developing these technologies and creating these experiences are our passions, so much so that if we didn’t have this company we’d still be creating on our own time. Our clients understand this and see how interactive and engaged we are with the work. We’re an innovation lab with the flexibility to explore any challenge.
How has the experiential technology industry changed in the last five years?
Drastically. When we first started, and even up until a year ago, most time was spent explaining why these technologies are relevant and how it will help a brand connect with a consumer. I’m finding there’s less of a need for that now. Brands and agencies understand that consumers are looking for a different relationship — they’re looking for a friendship. Interactivity allows brands to engage with consumers in a much more personal way and create a deep-seated memory between them.
There are now universities where students can earn their degrees in creative technology, which is what we all work in at Future Colossal. So, we’re starting to see a next generation be trained for this, but the real difference is experience and learning from installing these activations hundreds of times across the world. We know all the mistakes that can be made, so we monitor, plan, and prepare for them, implementing metrics and infrastructure tools to ensure success, set us apart from our competition, and make the clients comfortable.
Who are some of the coolest brands you’ve worked with?
One of my favorites was for Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. At that point, we had worked with them on so many projects that they were really comfortable and brought us in to read the show’s scripts for inspiration. They wanted to create an artistic experience in New York and LA that told a story and reflected the aesthetic of the television show. Beyond that, we were free to explore the themes of Penny Dreadful and create a storefront experience that immersed people walking by into it’s world. It was really exciting to produce something so unique. 
We ended up developing our own form of display technology, which we call Live Vinyl — a mix between a low-resolution LED wall and a very high-resolution rear-luminate vinyl print. The mix created something that was both video and image. People would stop to look at it because they didn’t understand whether what they were seeing was a video or a photograph. 
Artificially intelligent characters followed people walking by, kind of stalking them, and then interacted with them. The character might introduce itself to you, run into the background, light the city on fire, or get attacked by werewolves. We also created a face-tracking software that measured every time someone smiled — and by the end we had thousands of smiles a day. It was a very rewarding metric to know we brought a little bit of happiness to people during their day.
Another incredible project we just wrapped up was for Naked Juice’s new line of pressed juices. They wanted their activation to be unique and responsible, so we created a solar-powered vehicle that was driven around the country to different events. On the side of the vehicle was a 10 ft x 5 ft display where passersby could play a game using gesture controllers, then a drink would be dispensed from the side of the truck. The game was a lot of fun and the free juice was an unexpected surprise for people. The vehicle was environmentally conscious and built out of a hybrid fuel-efficient van with ten solar panels and 2,000 lbs. of batteries, which was enough to power two houses. 
This was one of the first times we were really able to do something that had no footprint. Even though the display was large and visible in the daylight, which is really hard to do, we were able to power it solely from the sun. Consumers had a lot of fun playing the game and learning about Naked Juice’s mission and their willingness to invest in a sustainable advertising solution.
If you were to advise a brand looking to implement experiential technology for the first time, what advice or guidance would you give them?
Concept is the most important part — make sure it will connect with your exact target market. Don’t use technology just for the sake of technology, you need to use it strategically and as a real tool. There are risks with working with these technologies, so make sure you’re working with a partner who understands those risks and that you account for them ahead of time. You need to have backup plans for your backup plans because in events, you only get one chance to be successful.
It’s a lot less risky for a brand to invest their money into something like web banners than an experience like this. No one loses their job over a failed banner, but no one gets a promotion over a successful banner, either. Experience ROI can be difficult to measure, because there isn’t always a direct tie-back to a sale or an easy way to quantify return. But, what we are able to do, is measure a project’s exposure. We build engagement software into our technology and get amazing metrics, such as the number of people interacting with the experience, the length of time they interact, and even how they interact. I’m having less conversations about ROI as more brands learn that they need to create relationships with their consumers.
The most powerful metric is when people remain engaged for 30 or 40 minutes at a time. Getting someone to stop for even a moment and immersive themselves in a brand is already incredibly successful because we’re trained to avoid and ignore advertising. When people flock to your advertisement, stay there for a significant amount of time, and then talk about afterwards, they become your best brand ambassador. 
Penny Dreadful's NYC storefronts
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Penny Dreadful's Los Angeles storefronts
Naked Juice's solar powered gaming feature on location at SXSW
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Naked Juice's solar panels
JakeLeeHigh(Web).jpg Jake Lee-High is an artist, creative technologist, and CEO of Future Colossal, an award-winning innovation lab for experiential technologies in entertainment, advertising and art. His vision shapes Future Colossal’s trajectory innovating new technologies and immersive experiences for clients such as BMW, Showtime, JayZ, Disney, and CitiBank. He's been featured in major publications including the Washington Post, Fast Company, PSFK, and MediaPost and received prestigious awards such as Cannes Lions, Clio, Andy, Adweek, and Art Directors Club. 

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Topics: event production, interview, partners

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