Flying high: Float4 on the intersection between design and technology
Charlotte Ashley talks to Float4’s Alex Simionescu to explore a design studio specialising in the use of digital technologies to craft experiences.
A 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.”