Flying high: Float4 on the intersection between design and technology

real-time digital canvas on 900' Michigan Shop's ceiling, deployed by Float4

Charlotte Ashley talks to Float4’s Alex Simionescu to explore a design studio specialising in the use of digital technologies to craft experiences.

Alexandre Simionescu, Co-Founder of digital agency FLOAT4, headshotA video  game  lover  at  heart,  and computer engineer by education, Alex  Simionescu’s  path  always seemed  destined  towards  a career  in  technology  before  he started his own company in 2008. “When I was younger everything to do with web development and  interactivity  fascinated  me,  so  during  my studies at the University of Montreal I gathered experience in various small companies working in  VFX  effects  and  things  like  that,”  recalls Simionescu. This would be his test bed ahead of founding Float4, his own experience design and creative technology firm, in Canada. Since then Float4 has gone on to build a global portfolio of projects including Dubai’s City Walk.

“When we started the company 10 years ago we had an idea that the technology used for video games could be used for other applications,” says Simionescu.  It  was  this  realisation  that led  the  company  to  create  its  own  real-time platform,  RealMotion,  in  addition  to  offering content production services. Ten years down the line and Simionescu says the company is  still learning and adapting: “What we’re realising is that there’s a lot more applications for real-time technology than the ones we’ve been working on.”  He adds:  “We see the market shifting towards content that had a much longer shelf life because it can continually change and isn’t limited by looping or a finite duration.”

Opportunities thus far for managing partner Simionescu and the 20-strong company (plus an army of regular freelancers) has largely come in the retail sphere, but work in the corporate arena has also been steady. The company also has set its sights on the entertainment field, which Simionescu states offers a “good amount of territory to cover” for the company.

Although  building  up  a  strong  US  base  for now,  with  a  focus  on  the  fixed  installation market,  Float4’s  reach  extends  far  beyond  its Montreal and New York offices. “We do intend to  expand  more  and  are  currently  discussing some  projects  in  Japan  and  China,  which  are both two massive markets,” notes Simionescu.

Surprisingly, one of the company’s current projects of note does not take in either the retail or corporate domain. “We’re actually currently working on the Statue of Liberty of Museum,” he says.  Designed  in  collaboration  with architect FXCollaborative with exhibit specialist ESI  Design,  Float4  led  on  the  production  and integration of interactive content (built around its own platform) exploring the heritage of the statue at the 2,415-square-metre museum, set to open in 2019 and attract 4.4 million annual visitors. “That’s going to be a really cool project – firstly, because of the nature of the site and secondly,  because  of  the  unique  and  iconic quality of the monument, which in itself makes it  a  very  stimulating  project  to  work  on.”  He continues: “But also when you look at all the AV components  creating  the  visitor  experience  it’s also a big technical challenge as there’s a great variety  of  experiences  to  engage  visitors  from different levels that need to come together.”

Another project in Chicago saw the company transform  retailer  900  North  Michigan  Shops’ ceiling  into  a  58-metre  long  real-time  digital canvas.  Divided  into  10  sub-sections,  content is  designed  to  be  dynamic  and  evocative (for  example,  swaying  trees  with  brightness  dependant  on  daylight  levels).  Although the  narrative  content  is  striking,  Simionescu notes  that  just  as  intricate  was  the  content management  system  behind  the  scenes powering  the  experience.  “Of course  the  goal was to not make the system seem intricate to the person using it, but a lot of work went into making a CMS that was usable in a format that’s really  uncommon  (i.e. 10 large-scale  displays). Float4’s work into making the installation easier to manage from a content standpoint (as well as lowering the cost of operation), means users can easily  generate  content  by  submitting  simple visual  assets,  which  are  then  gathered  and generated as content in real time. Critically, this avoids exposing them to having to build content for non-traditional formats.

“There is an evolution that’s happening – for a long time the notion of an ‘experience’ when it came to AV was reduced to spec sheets.”

The company may work across verticals, but Simionescu  says  although  the  core  materials used  for  each  project  are  the  same,  each  one requires carefully cultivating the right approach when  it  comes  to  client  expectations.  “When you work in retail, the notion of advertising and revenue generation from these corporations will come up much faster, whereas if you’re working in a purely architectural field it’s about how the technology complements the space.  It’s more a case of ‘what’s the story?’ and ‘what are the feelings that we want to create?’” he says. “Each vertical has its own specific needs, and each of them measures the result differently.” In terms of measuring outcomes, Simionescu says that Float4 constantly looks how it can better gather metrics, but is still searching for a comprehensive formula to cover a broad range of verticals.

Another  test,  though  industry-wide,  is  the ongoing battle for end user awareness beyond “a big screen on the wall” evolving into universal investment  in  the  power  of  what  AV  can  do and  the  “experience”-factor.  “When  people are  more  versed  in  the  field  they’ll  be  able  to express  their  needs  more  appropriately,  and create  better  projects.”  Simionescu adds that the efforts of the likes of AVIXA to rebrand and open the organisation and InfoComm shows to a wider audience is “absolutely essential” for the industry’s growth going forward, though a “big, big task.”

Of course to create an altogether more collaborative and therefore successful industry, both end users and the design world have to see the benefit of working more closely with AV. This is something Simionescu says will come as part of a wider attitude shift. “There is an evolution that’s happening – for a long time the notion of an ‘experience’ when it came to AV was (and still is  sometimes)  reduced  to  the  spec  sheets  and very technical  elements  to  understand  it,  and not about an abstract concept. There has been a clash in culture, but it’s starting to converge.”

It’s also the very nature of the design world, and  its  increasing  reliance  on  technology  that Simionescu  says  will  make  them  more  open for  change. “The design field using software may be nothing new, but things like VR really have made a big change and will continue to do so, because it allows  people  to  digitalise environments better.” He concludes: “We see a convergence in how much technology is adopted in the design field, but also in that it is being not only to design, but as part of the outcome and a material in what they’re building.”