Read Time: 12.5 minutes
Award-winning creative technology agency NEXT/NOW (Chicago) answers questions about hardware, engagement, strategy and more, comparing and contrasting work for retail and museum verticals.
NEXT/NOW describes itself as using “breakthrough technology to create unforgettable moments of connection between people and organizations.” They credit their proprietary code base in allowing seamless and rapid in-house prototyping of novel concepts, and their deep respect for their clients’ brand and audience for their philosophical approach. They believe the future belongs to those who create it.
We caught up with Chicago-based creative technology agency NEXT/NOW’s Marketing Strategist Mark Matthews, and Director of Business Development Randy Gress to discuss their digital experience work across the retail and museum verticals, how it differs and is similar.
What is NEXT/NOW’s origin story?
RG: We were founded in 2010 by Alan Hughes, our Chief Creative Officer. He had the vision to focus strictly on creating what we refer to as ‘digital interactive experiences for physical places and spaces.’ He was on the cutting edge, using technologies that weren’t mainstream to try to connect people with brands. That was the starting point in 2010, with a total of three employees. Now, in 2019, we are a team of 36. A lot of that growth has happened in the last few years, so it’s an exciting time for us.
Who are some of your big clients?
RG: Just a few of our big clients are Intel, Under Armour, Accenture and the NBA.
How much of your business comes from experiential design firms that don't have as strong of a digital capability?
RG: Almost 50 percent. The great part about it is that we’re experts in what we do, and we're not experts in a lot of things that our partners do, which makes for a wonderful, seamless collaborative process. The challenge, as with most group efforts and especially if we’re not at the table for whatever reason, is just making sure all communications are clear. Our niche, being on the edge of emerging technology, is a strong differentiator. We’re very specific with the projects that we do as a result.
What have been some crucial projects for NEXT/NOW in the retail sphere?
MM: As we talk about retail, one of the strong angles is that it can be used for more interactive and in-depth sales tools, although that’s not all we do in retail. There’s a fine balance between having technology take over the space and the technology working with the space—I think the Moen projects are a good example of technology working with the space.
Moen opened a flagship location in the Merchandise Mart here in Chicago and we created a couple of projection mapping vignettes that brought the space to life through the use of motion tracking technology. In one, we gave people the opportunity to ‘take a virtual shower.’ It was a demo for Moen’s smart shower product, which interacts with your phone or other devices, so it created an opportunity to play and discover the functionality without having to get wet.
RG: Another standout on the retail side was one we did for Trek bicycles: We were able to use AR and slow-motion capture to create a bicycle fitting kiosk. As a person gets on the bike, it measures and analyzes their body proportions and mechanics and make product, sizing and adjustment recommendations. The kiosk started out in Trek’s flagship store and ended up going into national stores, serving a vital role as a sales tool and also assuring customers that their bike fit is absolutely correct.
And in museums?
MM: For the Chicago Sports Museum, we created about eight different interactive experiences that bring the museum to life, including five gesture-based sports games utilizing famous Chicago teams and athletes. Our objective for experiences like this is to make sure that what’s happening within the museum space is not something that feels like it can be done at home—using novel display arrays, for example.
RG: One of the powerful things about museums is the ability to place someone inside what you’re trying to teach—instead of showing or telling. In this one, visitors get to step into the shoes of these athletes and ‘be’ them. We also worked directly with the athletes themselves to create the game, bringing a level of realism to it. Another recent project was an AR experience we did for an aquarium that allowed people to ‘visit’ the arctic—standing in front of a projection-mapped wall, they are filmed in real time and an image of them beside a giant walrus or polar bear appears in the projection, which is then photographed. It gives a sense of being there, interacting, but then also something to take home.
MM: A lot of what we do both in museums and in retail has that component of activation in one’s own social networks—a video, gif or image. This deepens the relationship and creates a give and take between the guest and the brand or museum.
Assuming engagement is the primary goal, and ticket/product sales are the second goal, how do you approach creating longer engagement times in retail and museum experiences?
RG: From our standpoint, we have to do a deep dive and understand the audience, because each retail location and each community have a different endgame. They do want to sell product, but sometimes they need technology as a way to help people understand the product better or to make them feel more comfortable—that’s where digital is coming in. We're creating an experience that you can't do online—that’s become a touchpoint for us. On the museum side, really understanding that audience and what are they coming to that museum to take in really drives what is the experience that we're trying to create. We’re a digital agency, but we’re not going to push digital, or any specific technology, if it’s not the right fit.
MM: Also, because retail has to keep up with the convenience of online shopping, it’s now all about making the store a destination. People are increasingly putting more worth on experiences as opposed to things. Then, there’s also been sort of an evolution in the thinking on brand relationship; it used to simply be about how the customers feel about the brand, but now it’s as much a two-way street. Any time a brand is able to provide something to the consumer that makes them feel more special or singles them out, it absolutely improves that relationship.
With museums, obviously we're living in the information age. Museums aren’t the singular repositories they were when we were kids and attention spans are shorter. It’s important to provide things that cut through the static, that do catch people's attention and engage them in a way that's unique and memorable.
What are some of the differences in the creation of these experiences outside of content?
RG: In retail, I think one of the big things is scalability; often we start from a pilot that gets rolled out to 300, 600, 2000 locations. So you really need to think about the customer journey and scalability from a retail perspective. You really need to think about the customer journey. Often in retail it will be an unfacilitated experience but within a museum, it’s more likely to have a docent or guide.
In retail, there’s so much more branding, messaging and sales, whereas in museums, it's really about making information more accessible and more interactive. At the end of a museum experience, you want people to be enlightened by the information; at the end of a retail experience, you want people to be educated about and interested in the brand.
For museum clients, how often does generating referral or repeat visits play a part in experience creation?
RG: The way museums are funded is a factor that needs to be taken into account, but I think there's always a desire to create a draw for people to return to the museum.
MM: Museums certainly feed off tourism, but part of their bread and butter are people that live in the city and become members—the idea is to make that more attractive. I think that a big focus of museum work is that they're constantly making the case that they're worth revisiting.
With these types of digital interactives, are clients typically more prescriptive, or vague?
RG: The majority of the time, we are providing suggestions. They’ll have a loose idea of a technology or an end goal. Then we'll take that and iterate with several different technology options before really working with them to narrow it down. It’s rare for clients to come in with a fully fleshed-out idea but, when they do, we turn it into reality whenever possible.
What does the NEXT/NOW research process look like? Do you have a standard protocol, or is it developed separately for each project?
RG: Typically, it's all done in house and really it starts with determining who the audience is and the goal of the space. In the early phases we invest time in educating clients on technology they’re unfamiliar with and best practices to use in achieving their goals.
MM: Inside our team, every day we're sharing what we've discovered, what we've read, what's new, what's coming out, what’s been upgraded and how. It’s vital to staying on the cutting edge so, when a client comes to us, we know everything that's possible.
RG: The R&D process is forever ongoing. We’re a team of developers, producers, artists and branding experts, but we're all technologists. So we all have a strong understanding of what's out there and what can be done because each facet needs to work together within that.
Do you typically prototype in studio?
RG: We absolutely prefer to have all the technology here and we put it together to make sure everything works, it’s a pretty standard practice for us.
Do you typically bring in user groups to test? How does that process work?
RG: We bring in third party testers because it's very important to us that the technology is accessible. ‘User-friendly' has become such a cliché, but anything we build absolutely has to function in such a way that anybody can walk up to it and immediately know what they're doing. So we bring people in and observe any conflicts or difficulties and then we utilize that information to reduce pain points.
Your team codes in house, correct? What is most frequently used?
MM: Yes, we do. Everything we run is typically run on a game engine because of the real-time render solutions. We use Unity and Unreal frequently, and our robust team of developers are well-versed in languages like C Sharp. We have almost equal parts developers, 3D animators, motion graphic artists and producers.
In your opinion, what technology is about to be played out?
MM: Gesture control and big touchscreens aren’t going anywhere soon, but they have lost their wow factor. I mean, we all have touchscreens in our pockets now.
What’s the hottest buzz-worthy thing right now, and what's up-and-coming on the periphery?
MM: Augmented reality is the one we see a lot of requests for, followed by virtual reality. We’ve done some interesting things with facial recognition, specifically with facial expressions of emotion. There are certainly some wider societal implications and questions that are likely to arise as it becomes more widespread.
Is that what everyone’s going to be doing in five years?
MM: It’s tricky. I would stick to augmented reality on that one. Augmented reality can be a powerful tool to provide additional information to almost any situation. Obviously, that's a big thing. I can look at a statue and maybe it tells me about itself, that kind of thing. It ends up becoming the fusion of the actual and the digital, whereas with VR, you're all in the digital. It’s truly groundbreaking.
Now Apple and Android have been able to put it in your phone so that made it more accessible. Where AR was lacking until recently was in the ability to place an object in physical space and have it remaining there, no matter where you view it from, meaning multiple people can all hold up their phones and see the same thing at the same time, in the same location, regardless of where they're standing.
If you look at an exhibit, for example, what has previously been a still-frame image can now be ‘alive,’ additional information can fly in, or you can have the actual experts standing next to an artifact. For retail, there’s the ability to immediately pull up more information, reviews or try things on and virtually share that with friends. That’s a game changer for e-commerce, too. And then, there's also wayfinding—for example, if I'm in a big store, arrows could guide me right to my selection.
I think you're going to see a lot more AR marketing because anything can be an AR marker—even television. People can just hold up their phones and be taken right in. I think we're still probably 10 years away from AR being a part of our everyday life.
Where and why do AR experiences work—or not work? VR experiences?
MM: VR is completely immersive. VR can take you to outer space or shrink you down in size and put you into the human body. We can invent physics and just create a magical environment. VR is a singular experience that definitely separates you from your physical environment—it all depends on whether you’re trying to interact with real objects or not. Until recently, VR has struggled with access in that the setup and cost were prohibitive, but Oculus has changed that.
VR will continue to grow, especially as the technology gets better, but I don't know if every home is going to have one outside of gaming systems maybe. Medical training is an important function for it, as is architectural rendering; those types of applications will expand.
What hardware or software has NEXT/NOW found are good for high traffic settings?
MM: For AR we often use tablets like iPad Pro because they’re large. Sometimes we build them into something. For VR we’ve created an armature much like a periscope you stick your face into, and we have a headset connected to that and then you can just sort of hold onto the sides. We did one for Under Armour to preview a store in Boston.
Instead of ‘coming soon’ signage, we implemented two VR kiosks with a virtual representation of what the store was going to be like that were there and unattended for over three months; we never had any problems. Multitouch displays are very reliable and gesture is becoming more so.
Of the interactive experience technologies discussed, what are the hardest to implement? The easiest?
MM: VR and AR pipelines aren't too terribly different from each other as far as creating the assets and doing the programming—ideally not fewer than eight to 12 weeks. They generally take the longest, but we rarely get that much time on a project. Projection mapping depends heavily on the complexity of the surface and animation. We did a projection mapping project onto trees for the Illinois Bicentennial, which presented a unique challenge.
As far as gesture, it really comes down to the level of detail in the content.
What are you working on now, in retail and museums?
MM: I can’t name names, but AR has been absolutely huge for us lately. We're creating experiences that allow a virtual look ‘under the hood’ to see how the mechanics work, show the trim, color or interior options, or demonstrate the safety features of a vehicle.
In museums, we’ve been doing some interesting projection mapping projects. Recently, we did a whole scene projection-mapped onto a river, where animals come out and explain the waterway’s biodiversity directly to the audience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.