Peter Cliff from Conductr on connecting the dots

Paul Milligan speaks with Peter Cliff, co-founder of a new immersive experiences house, who has spotted a gap in the market in fusing technology and events.

Peter Cliff began working in themed entertainment back in 2006 and has worked “both sides of the coin” since then as an integrator and as a technology ride manufacturer. It is this experience that led him, along with co-founder Jos van der Steen, to create Conductr in mid-2022.

Previously the global creative director of Holovis, what drove Cliff to set up his own company? “I noticed a gap in the market, which was for a creative agency that had a focus on delivering media and technology as a combined unified skillset. There are AV designers, media producers, software developers, but I wanted to form a company that understands the guest experience, which can bring people together, create social interactions with each other, and that really understands the principle of software development, game design, media production, AV, lighting, projection, as a whole piece.” Conductr is not a large scale AV integrator he says, nor is it a creative studio or end client. “We sit right in the middle of it all and conduct this wonderful orchestra in both senses of the word - we are conductors, but also conductive material, bringing people together and connecting the dots.”

L-R: Peter Cliff and co-founder Jos van der Steen

Cliff feels it’s this middle space where his company can really add value, as this example suggests; “We know that if a client wants to do some really cool AR stuff they will want to work with Microsoft and its HoloLens product. But just buying a Microsoft HoloLens is not going to get them where they want to go. Also Microsoft don't understand location-based experiences, and we do, and it’s that middle competency, being a Babel fish (a universal translator) for both sides which I think is a unique proposition to the market.”

The plan is for Conductr to remain ‘relatively boutique’, with a maximum of 30-40 people in the company at one time, with freelancers helping when workload dictates. Just what is Cliff’s overall vision for Conductr? “Our objective is to be the industry leader in creating technology and media-based experiences. We want to be a friend of the industry as well. There’s a long-term plan of opening our own facilities, being an owner/operator in the long run, simply because of the creative freedom that allows us and considering that we’ve got the competency in-house, it makes sense for us to look at these Van Gogh-type experiences that are touring and say what about us doing something like that? One of the things we often find is that because the complexity of what we do and the advanced nature of it, not every client is ready for it, not to the extent that it can be delivered. So why not let us be the trendsetter or the North Star for the industry?”

Is Conductr planning to work just in the design phase? Or will it be there to project manage an install? And how will its relationship work with system integrators? “If it’s small enough, we'll do it ourselves. If it’s like the Royal Liver Building (see April 2019 issue of Inavate) or an immersive experience, one that needs a couple of guys with 50 speakers, a couple of lights and a projector, then we have the capability to do it in-house. But if we were doing a major multimillion dollar project, we would do the design up until the schematic stage then bring in an AV partner, and they would then integrate under our technical guidance.”

Conductr will be a global operation and is focusing on the Middle East (with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar showing interest already) initially, but also sees the US and South-east Asia (especially Vietnam and Thailand) as big growth markets too. As well as working on projects, Conductr will be looking at developing its own products, but products in the loosest sense explains Cliff. “We’re not going to be product focused, as maybe some of your readers would be familiar with, like a projector or a light fixture. But creating an experience that is relatively redeployable, something that might be multi-million pound investment on the first shot, but then lifting that and putting it in or scaling it down, becomes relatively easy to do. So that’s another avenue that we’re definitely looking at developing over the next 12 to 18 months.” One of the first products Conductr is developing is called Boxi, a three-sided interactive projection space, featuring three projectors, an optical tracking system and a selection of games that could drop into cruise ships or visitor experiences for example.

How would Cliff describe his and Conductr’s approach to technology? “I view it as an illusion a magician uses. If we replace AV with magic that is very overt like David Copperfield flying, there's a trick. And the focus is on the trick. I want to use technology closer to the way that Darren Brown uses illusion. They’re using exactly the same gimmicks, camera tricks etc but you don’t realise that Brown is using a gimmick because he spends 15 minutes talking about story and experience and narrative; they’re fundamentally doing the same thing, but it’s where the focus lies.”

For those same reasons outlined above we probably won’t be seeing VR in many Conductr-designed experiences anytime soon. “We’re actively avoiding VR as a capability,” says Cliff. “It’s a really cool technology, but for us it doesn’t align with our principles, which are about shared experiences bringing people together. If it’s not right for the experience, we will talk people down from tech. I’m not going to discredit VR because there are a lot of companies that do it, but for us we want heads up not heads down. We want to connect people and encourage social reactions and interactions. When you go to attractions with your family or friends, there's as much of a payoff to looking at your friends and saying, ‘Did you see that?’ or seeing them smile. That’s more magic than you can put on a screen in my opinion, that's why we focused on that.”

So if we won’t be seeing VR from Conductr soon, what technology is exciting Cliff and his team right now? “There is potential in using AI as an interactive tool in experiences, using real time technologies to allow people to choose their own adventure, choose their own narrative, interact with the story to change it.” This does come with some (as yet unsolved) logistical challenges admits Cliff, “If you have six people in a ride vehicle and there's a branching part of the story which says ‘Do you want to go down the dark, terrible woods or down the creek?’. If three people chose one option and three another then half the audience are left disappointed. The nuance of that experience hasn’t really been drilled into yet.”

Instead Cliff feels AI can be used right now to see how people respond to rides or experiences, where are they looking for example? What part is giving them pleasure? “There’s a whole platform of technology we are comfortable with and familiar with (screens, lighting, projection, ride systems, motion platforms) to redefine the landscape. I think it's the biggest revolution in our industry for a long time, but there’s a lot of work to be done on it.” With that in mind Conductr is developing its our own platform called Conductr AI, which Cliff describes as ‘attractions intelligence’. “There’s a whole suite of developments we’re working on at the moment that can be integrated into museums, cultural centres, attractions, that does all of this stuff.” He gives one example of a recent project in a museum that used AI. Every piece of art in the museum’s catalogue was scanned, so when people went up to each artifact the organisers had a visual record (using facial analysis) of how they reacted to it. “If you pulled a horrible face it would match it with a gargoyle. It was a lovely way of using simple AI to bring the catalogue to life, which is the stuff that we want to be playing around with as well,” says Cliff.

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