Huge project, small company – how Phoria uses AR to help repair the world

Putting a polar bear into your living room – Augmented Reality, a small Australian company and the rewilding of the planet.

There is a battered door in Melbourne’s Fitzroy which leads to huge vistas of space and time, like a modern version of Alice in Wonderland. It is called Phoria, a studio that creates Virtual Reality projects which combine commercial and idealistic work. This synthesis has catapulted them onto the world stage. 

The place is packed with an impossible number of staff, manipulating imagery about the destruction of the natural world to reverse time and human impact. On the net, Phoria is a small node to three different museums around the world, linked in turn to some of the biggest tech companies on the planet, all to bring the fears and dreams of one man, David Attenborough, into our living rooms for children to play with our possible futures.

The project started as an eight part series for Netflix made with Attenborough by Silverback Films, all with the World Wildlife Fund. Google became involved to as a practical testbed for new technologies, and a fabulous linear documentary morphed into tools to create pieces of future media. 

That is as far as I can go to put this together with words. Vimeo must do the rest. As you watch, notice the appearance of Samuel Tate and Trent Clews-de Castella, because our story is about them.

The Rewild Our Planet project in this version occurs in a controlled museum environment, in which the Alternate Reality imagery occurs on a specialised viewer and is laid into the scene captured by the camera. These events are amazingly complex because every person is watching from unique points of view in bounded areas, both real and digital. You want a polar bear in the room? There it is, white and toothy, prowling in front of your family, and they can link each other together to combine their separate slices into a larger whole. I find the bear and it moves to the kids. 

There is a sense in this experience of enormous hunger and grief, ported from the original Netflix series and the overarching sensibility of David Attenborough, whose own life has traversed the joy of unknown natural worlds to their systematic destruction in a biological Holocaust, an ecocide of a planet. 

Small company, international clout

Let’s go through that door in Fitzroy.

This is where I have an attack of the provincials. Phoria is doing business with the Netflix Titan, with a global technology company called OnePlus, and with Google, as one of the very first users of ARCore and Cloud Anchors.

Google explains the venture clearly.

REWILD Our Planet is an AR nature series produced by Melbourne based studio PHORIA. The experience is based on the Netflix original documentary series Our Planet. REWILD uses Ultra High Definition Video alongside AR content to let you venture into earth’s unique habitats and interact with endangered wildlife. It originally launched in museums, but can now be enjoyed on your smartphone in your living room. As episodes of the show are released, persistent Cloud Anchors allow you to return to the same spot in your own home to see how nature is changing.

Effectively, Android users can place a virtual object on their phones in relation to a place in the real world, and it will remain there until the owner, and other phones linked to it, come back again. Imagine a room strewn with virtual objects. 

In mid-October Phoria announced the free beta version of the first of four environments, which will ultimately work on both Android and Apple. It takes that museum experience from the first video, and allows people to evoke it in any environment. The images are turning your space into a landscape which is first denuded and then rewilded. And yes, it can look pretty blocky as it strains at the edge of technical possibilities. 

The original museum version ran on dedicated computers with considerable computing power. The phone version is crawling across the net and the quality depends on the limitations of all the intervening systems. 

Against all probabilities

How did this mission fall to Phoria? I asked CEO Trent Clews de Castella who once managed a bakery and owned a pop up bar business, and took a degree in Applied Science specialising in psychology from the University of Melbourne. He went into business with Joseph Purdam, his friend from Jewish school in Canberra.

By 2014 they were providing 2D visual material for real estate agents and figured that humans live in 3D and the technology should do the same. He was really exploring the deep psychology of experience and could see the landscape shifting around him. So he rolled the proverbial dice, recruited friends and set up Phoria as a startup.

The mix of skills gave them a really sold base in a new field, backed by some baker’s acumen which led to solid revenue streams around real estate, museums, exhibitions, architecture tours and environmental projects. 

‘We had an opportunity to take VR to a hospital, and saw one lady’s experience, who could get up out of the physical circumstances and just literally be transported to anywhere else,’ he said. ‘And that was like, a lightbulb moment.’

‘We saw there could be some pathways around virtual and augmented reality with great partners, thinking about how we can scale up our capabilities and confidence, create impactful experiences, and take on some of these international players.

‘So we had a few of them aboard and then we adopted some of the key features coming into AR to drive what we call AR Realism in which virtual content is physically there.’

The rise of the smartphone took the technological direction from proprietory devices to everyone’s most personal extension. Phoria was pushing hard, and responded to a brief which Netflix circulated about Rewilding. They were up against some of the largest companies in this area, but, Clews-de Castella said, ‘We have a pretty novel way of doing things like social and environmental impact, it resonated on a really deep level. And that was where the proposal really shone through. Because it wasn’t just about the project – It was actually about the fact that we can harness media storytelling to transform the human experience.’

The commercial work gave them the resources to work at the edge of technological possibility. But the idealism mattered too, because this project is a collaboration between Google and the World Wildlife Fund, which already knew and respected Phoria because they had worked together. 

‘We pushed a little harder and the feedback was amazing. And we got the project, and we are kind of going from there. To really elevate what is possible on VR’.

The journey, constantly updated, is on Facebook.

Getting philosophical 

‘There has never been a greater abundance of content going out into the world,’ Clews de Castella said. But VR has encountered resistance from traditional filmmakers because linear work gives them control of the narrative. In VR, the viewers becomes the storyteller because they control their point of view. 

‘First and foremost, through this experience, we found there’s like a sweet spot in the middle, where you can still be the director and position the camera and set up the scene and shoot to have an immersive experience for the viewer. We are just using a 180 degrees field of view, which is really interesting.

‘The fact that this landscape is so different now, you can’t really go to university to get a degree in what I create. And because of that, it  opens up flows for anyone to then get involved. ‘

‘With AR, there are a few ways to go about it. Augmented Reality is actually extending and augmenting the space you’re already in, enhancing what is already in front of you. And that’s what makes us unique and special.’

With VR, creators provide all the visual material, and the viewer chooses to watch pre-prepared scenes, guided by movement, suggestive lighting and the soundscape. But in these AR projects, the created assets are laid on top of the viewer’s environment, so the visuals are unique, created on the spot and are not fashioned by the maker. 

And yet, he said, ‘I am absolutely ecstatic about what can be produced by filmmakers in the future. Greater interactivity drives greater engagement, and additional elements like immersion create a sense of presence. So rather than passively observing something, you’re becoming part of a much more lived experience.’

And yes, COVID is part of the discussion

On 3 January, Trent Clews-de Castella found himself driving across country through the bushfire smoke, wearing a mask, seeing the damage done to the country. 

‘We are in a position where there’s a lot of noise out there in the world, a lot of things that we should be concerned about, and we are faced with decision fatigue, or cognitive overload. 

‘And without a shadow of a doubt, we need to accelerate our ability to change things. This is a way of giving people a user experience where they feel much more connected to it, and much more emotionally compelled to then take action. They have more confidence around their actions or the opinions they can act on.’

He describes this pandemic year as a digital awakening. ‘We’ve been through a shared experience, involving every single person on the planet in some way. ‘And so I think that kind of collective mindset, supported by digital technology and digital media, are gonna hopefully be positioned to really embrace and move us forward as a species into the future.’

A different kind of developmental ecosphere 

At its broadest, every new technology embraced by the screen sector follows similar evolutionary rules. A new system – moving pictures, sound, colour, television, 3D, reproducible digital delivery – make consumption more like direct experience, and creates new marketplaces. 

But digital technology is different in one vital way, which is turning the traditional railway line of development into an N-dimensional time-torn shambles. The driving forces of new technology and delivery systems are much wide than the screen sector, which may only be a byproduct. No matter how much streaming eats up capacity, the function is actually pretty minor. 

Companies like Phoria are not media companies. They don’t fit any convenient slot. ‘The fact that this landscape is so different now, you can’t really go to university to get a degree in what I create. And because of that, it  opens up flows for anyone to then get involved. As a creator I am looking at little kids and using AR to scan barcodes so people can understand the allergies that might be triggered by the ingredients. Who knows where we are going to be in a couple of decades from now?

Here is the OnePlus launch clip for REWILD, part of its much longer video for the whole company which attracted over a million viewers. They certainly like Phoria.

That hospital moment also became a strand of work with medical researchers to find ways of using VR with child cancer patients. This makes the streaming world seem kind of trivial. 

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Buried in Phoria is a compendium of their projects. 

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.