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Framestore’s William Sargent on the Role Augmented Reality is Pl aying in Our Future
Framestore, the visual effects company responsible for cinematic feasts including Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy, is used to harnessing technology to create dazzling cinematic worlds. But when it comes to the real-life future, CEO William Sargent sees augmented reality playing a strong role in our lives. Lucy Ingham hears his predictions for what’s in store
Cinema is one of the most powerful mediums for visualising the future, and there is no company more experienced in creating futuristic worlds for entertainment than Framestore, the multi award-winning company behind the visual effects for a vast array of blockbusters, including Ghost in the Shell, Alien: Covenant, Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy.
It is no surprise then, that the merging of virtual and real worlds is something that CEO William Sargent has given considerable thought to.
“To put my colleagues and myself and our sector in context, we create experiences that start to deliver on the promise of many of these virtual dimensions,” he says in an insightful talk at Web Summit. “We help tell stories for the purposes of learning, sensing, experiencing, entertaining, informing.”
When it comes to the merging of virtual and physical, it’s clear that technology is ensuring that the future is firmly on its way.
“I love the multiscreen world I inhabit. It has enabled, it's livened and it's encouraged me on a daily basis,” says Sargent.
Framestore has also engaged in numerous projects in this area, particularly within virtual reality.
“You'll see many examples of these: taking you on a hike virtually, taking you to Mars on a bus, putting you on the set of Game of Thrones,” he explains.
However, Sargent believes there is far more to come, with augmented reality (AR) set to have a profound impact not only on our entertainment, but on many aspects of our lives.
AR on show in Guardians of the Galaxy. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
The augmented future reality
While much of the tech world is currently focused on the wonders, potential and spectre of artificial intelligence, Sargent sees AR as the next life-shaping technology.
“For me I'm seeing a race for what I believe is the next fundamental space: augmented space,” he says. “The space where digital overlays our real world, and combines to enhance our experience through constant access.
“If we look back to the 70s and the 80s, lines of code enabled space travel, guided missiles. The 90s and 2000s were the mouse, wireless, incredible processing power which made cyberspace a reality. For me the next decade, the next 20 years, is how we fill air.”
Outlining his vision for the impact of augmented reality and associated technologies in the next five years, Sargent describes a near future where everything from entertainment to technology will be impacted by the medium.
Starting with art, he gives the example of a once-in-a-lifetime Picasso exhibition held at New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2016 which saw 140 sculptures by the artist exhibited together for the one-off show.
“People going around, instead of the audio guide they could have had the augmented guide. They could have been in the junkyard where he collected the rubbish to make the sculptures. You could be in the studio with him,” he explains.
“More importantly, to have recorded this one-off experience meant that it was a record. It would be access for those who couldn't visit. It would be access for scholars; it would be access for students, access for children for 50 years, for 100 years, to something that will never be together again.”
I'm seeing a race for what I believe is the next fundamental space: augmented space
Turning his attention to entertainment, he describes a world where both live and recorded content will be enriched by digital overlays.
“In broadcasting we will obviously be adding layers to our television content. Our days will be anticipated with information in the air,” he says.
“Those of us whose musical heroes have passed away this past year or two, we will be able to feel their presence in a way that is only matched by the original live experiences.
“In terms of spectacle, our theatrical outings will include characters sitting next to us. Fantastical props filling, occupying vast spaces. Ceremonies layered with complexities.”
While fantastical, however, these areas are nothing to the level of impact AR could bring to education, where Sargent sees the technology democratising learning at an unprecedented level.
“In the world of learning, all levels will be brought to life,” he continues. “Teaching content will be made accessible for every nation, every age group, every economic segment and society. So we do have the potential for genuine equalisation of childhood learning experiences.”
However, learning will not just stop with children – adults too will have the opportunity to keep building on their knowledge.
“The concept of discovery is going to be as big, as wide, as deep as your curiosity wants, and not just obviously through a search engine but knowing where you are and who you are and that that'll be your experiences.“
Doctor Strange's astral form, which bears a strong resemblence to some forms of augmented reality. Image courtesy of Framestore
The dark side of the future
However, while these technological leaps will have profound benefits for our lives, Sargent is also aware and concerned about the emerging negatives of the march of technology.
He sees our newly augmented lives being “driven by data, driven by algorithms, driven by motives, which, as we beginning to see, are not always apparent”, and is particularly concerned about the vanishing presence of privacy technology is providing.
“The general mood, the trend that I'm noticing emerging, is a concept of being unsettled about the contract that we appear to have entered into,” he says.
“The choice we made to accept free as the currency of the internet. The consequences of accepting the concept that we don't have the right to privacy, or at least we've signed it away and it's incredibly difficult, generally, to reverse this.“
The trend that I'm noticing emerging, is a concept of being unsettled about the contract that we appear to have entered into. The choice we made to accept free as the currency of the internet
This exchange of privacy for the wonders of modern technology is an issue that he sees particularly impacting younger people.
“As a parent I find myself talking about the price of privacy for millennials the way my parents talked to me about the irreversible consequences of a tattoo. It's ironic that the millennial generation has embraced giving up privacy and tattoos as the statement of life and expression,” he says.
However, it is not just about privacy. Sargent sees the future carrying other issues, which he anticipates will grow in impact along with technology.
“The community is realising that there are issues about not paying a fair share of tax, about receiving investment from questionable sources, not accepting the responsibility of the disruption,” he explains. “Disruption often caused by funds that enable below-cost operations. Not accepting responsibility for those hurt by thoughtlessness, using free speech to block market-balancing initiatives.”
While some of these issues are the maturation of seeds sown many years ago, he anticipates greater problems to come.
“The last 20 years, the post-Reagan period in the twentieth century, saw competition severely hampered, saw the accumulation of market share that led to price rises and lower employment,” he says. “The new industries that we're all creating are about to unleash a second generation of job losses. The first was obviously manual workers; AI and its manifestations will devastate graduate and office communities.“
He believes, then that those creating and embracing technology need to be mindful of their impact.
“The mirror that I'm hoping to hold up today is: are we taking the responsibility to understand the impact of innovation, the cost of innovation, the reach of innovation?”
William Sargent, during his talk at Web Summit. Image courtesy of Web Summit
Cautious future optimism
However, despite having concerns, Sargent remains cautiously optimistic about the future, in part as a result of his own personal circumstances.
“Last year my wife and I had our first baby. Those of who are new parents know the impact, the sheer scale of responsibility thrust on the day of birth,” he says. “I find myself walking the canals in London wondering about his future, and it’s a very grounding mindset if you're a CEO in the technology business.
“I have a general sense as I do this that I love the wonder in life, I love the fact that I meet people, the learning that's still ahead of me, the pride and pleasure with my colleagues' achievements, the richness of our family lives. All of these are enhanced by the two parallel planes, the hybrid, the physical and the digital.
“So today we are defining our future as a community. I've tried to give some sense of what's exciting me. As I build a business I'm trying to find revenue lines I can be proud of. I am responsible to my colleagues and their families to be profitable, but I'm also being held to account by them for the impact of the profit. “
This conflict is one anyone in the technology space is likely to be familiar with, and Sargent’s message to them is to think carefully about the effects of their efforts.
“I'm going to conclude in a conflict. I'm optimistic and I'm cautious,” he says. “I'm cautious because there's so much to be done. But I'm optimistic because there isn't humanity 1.0 or 2.0 or 3.0. Humanity is resilient, and the possibilities open to each family no matter where we are, which continent we live in.
“We all have an obligation to enable this, to remember that as a community we have yet to take the responsibilities for what disruption brings, what our work unleashes. What tools we provide the unscrupulous. So my parting thought is: be thoughtful.”