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Tactic: creating immersive experiences in real time

"We try to invent solutions and custom software," explains Tactic president Peter Oberdorfer, of the company's AR and VR marketing strategies.
Written by Tonya Hall, Contributor

"We have everything from concept artists and art directors, to animators, to game engine and game engineer type people, to core engineers and web designers," says Peter Oberdorfer, president of Tactic, in an interview with TechRepublic's Tonya Hall. "We do a little bit of everything, honestly, and there's a lot of multidisciplinary people as well."

Watch the video interview above or read the full transcript below.

Tonya Hall: Are you ready for the day that you go to the store, walk down the aisle, and products start talking to you? That day is here. Hi, I'm Tonya Hall with ZDNet, and our guest today is Peter Oberdorfer, he is the president of Tactic. What is Tactic?

Peter Oberdorfer: Tactic is a company that creates immersive experiences in real time. We concentrate a lot on augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, and other emerging formats. We also do installations and anything else that our clients can bring to us in that sort of realm. It's a lot of fun, we try to invent solutions and custom software for people, basically.

Tonya Hall: Now, I have to set the stage, you're actually in your offices in San Francisco in a conference room, because you work in a very collaborative, open workspace. Talk a little bit about managing that kind of environment.

Peter Oberdorfer: Well, it's very multidisciplinary, actually. We have everything from concept artists and art directors, to animators, to game engine and game engineer type people, to core engineers and web designers. We do a little bit of everything, honestly, and there's a lot of multidisciplinary people as well. But despite the kind of circus atmosphere that is, when you have the trapeze artists and the lion tamers and all that kind of stuff, we all kind of know what each other does, so usually when a project comes in, we all know our roles.

It's a lot like feature-film work, honestly, which is where I come from. I was a visual-effects person for a long time working on all of the features, but now a lot of us have migrated into the digital realm, and are sort of plying our wares that way. And it's been a really fun ride, because the Bay Area is full of this kind of work, and it's both challenging and creatively rewarding for all of us.

Tonya Hall: I'm sure that's a pretty interesting, significant change for you, I mean you worked in movies or in television animation, to working with brands, right, about how they're gonna actually implement augmented reality. What's been the biggest challenge as someone in the creative side to actually make that, what's the biggest challenge to talking to brands about why they might need to use this kind of future marketing tool?

Read also: Google's ARCore Behind New AR Consumer Apps

Peter Oberdorfer: At first, it was really challenging to talk to them about something that not many people have experienced and was really an emergent sort of early stage thing so couple years ago when we're trying to sell something like augmented reality or virtual reality to people, hardly anybody had headsets, hardly anybody had seen augmented reality on phone or anything like that and so, you go into meetings talking about the promise of it, and showing what can be done with all this, but people had a hard time believing how could somebody out on the street use this. Since then, you've seen all of the major technology companies, you know Alphabet, Google, Facebook, Apple, everybody is sort of coming out in all social networking platforms and Snapchat.

They're all coming out with either augmented reality, virtual reality in 360, or both, as part of their solution and offerings. It's part of their platforms. It's part of their medium and they've all, you know, [Mark] Zuckerberg and Tim Cook, and all these other folks have said, "this is the future." And so they sort of print reality in a way, and I kind of feel like, when they say that that's what their hardware platforms and what their operating systems are gonna be about, that begins to motivate the audience to look for content. And that's what's happened. In the past, I don't know, month or so we've gotten hundreds of thousands of downloads of our latest augmented reality app, when probably two years ago the same app might not have had that type of impact.

And we're seeing that growth be really explosive and a lot our media and outreach, doing this, is done for us by the Zuckerbergs and Tim Cooks of the world. Because they're saying the new iPhone's all about augmented reality or Facebook's future is in virtual reality and we bought Oculus and all this sort of thing. For us that sort of validates our vision as a company and what we think the future represents. Because eventually, the audience catches up and then content becomes something that's really important, because people are investing in these technologies on the hardware side, and operating-system side, and platform side, but then they want to see content. And branded solutions are great because it allows us to play in a lot of sandboxes. We can move across these mediums, really discover how they work, experiment with content, but it's all short form so we're able to work through a lot of these things and understand how it works and then offer those to brands and customers as we move through them.

Read also: This startup is building game-changing image rendering tech for VR and AR

Tonya Hall: You talked about the success of your last campaign. Was that the one that you worked on with 19 Crimes?

Peter Oberdorfer: Yes. That's correct and it's continuing onward. We've noticed in the past couple weeks it's spiking. So it's really moving forward in a way that we couldn't have even anticipated just organically and virally. I think a lot of it coincides with the release of the iPhone X for example, people are really like, "Okay, well, what is augmented reality, where can I see it in my daily life?" So this becomes one of those examples where there already was a fan base or customer base for this product and they were interested in finding out about the backstory. In the case of 19 Crimes, it was a backstory of the Australian settlers and the initial penal colonies, history of Australia and the story of all these sort of amazing people who went and traveled by boat so we tell that story in augmented reality, by having bottles talk to you about it, and each of the characters represented on bottles when you hold your phone in front of it, they can speak about it and that's a way of connecting to a brand that people never really had before.

Video Clip: Convicted of crime 18, spared the hangman's noose, banished to Australia. I found true love in the most unlikely of places.

Peter Oberdorfer: It's at the point of sale. It's something that engages people with the brand, they want to find out more they want to collect more of the experiences and these are things that happen in the retail space so I think in that sense also it re-energizes retail space to have products activate this way. And that's something that I think is needed in this day and age in this technology we can contribute to.

Tonya Hall: You talked about a huge increase in activity with this and I think people are very interested in augmented reality how it's affecting them and I rushed out the minute I, actually saw it demonstrated on Facebook. I went out and bought a bottle of the wine, I was just showing you myself because, actually I bought like a case of it because it was so exciting this idea that you can actually connect to a brand at a retail space. I was also a big fan of Pokémon GO and for a couple of weeks and I got really into that and I think people are, the average person is more interested in augmented reality. Right?

Read also: AR to be key to business, as VR lands with consumers, says IDC

Peter Oberdorfer: It's really funny because it's sort of I guess sort of an insular nerd in all this stuff. I was really just into how I experienced all of these things and was super into virtual reality from early days. From the first Kickstarter of Oculus, that just blew me away, but what I think I lost sight of a little bit was that I had to buy the $300 headset and the $500 headset and the $700 headset and I had a way of feeding into that because that was what I did for work so, I was using this stuff and just amazed on this premium equipment that we have. What the experiences were, but what I think I lost sight of a little bit, was where's the user base? Where's the millions of people and the thing that's great about augmented reality is that, everybody, virtually everybody is carrying around the technology they need in their pocket, and that's part of what made the tipping point of Pokémon GO inevitable.

Now that these phones are a year or two beyond that, they can do amazing things. They can track reality into the environment, they can have you interact with it, all these things you can do that don't even begin to reach the full potential of what mobile platforms can do at times. I think it's really an open canvas for us to explore how these things work, how we can network, share an experiences, how we can interact with these things. All these things, it's a new medium really, because it's so pervasive, it's something that requires no extra purchases, it's essentially free above-and-beyond people having a phone. So that is big. Once you've created a user audience, then it begins to feed on itself, inventing things with like user-generated content, and communities that use these things. I think that's what VR has tried to, and to a certain extent struggled to achieve.

It's gonna grow a little more slowly and each of the mediums face challenges technically as they grow, but the growth of both at this point is inevitable. We've seen VR sort of level off and not shrink, and then AR has exploded and then we'll start to see more and more fidelity in these equipment until they begin to merge into recall-meets-reality. A few years down the line where augmented reality, virtual reality, mixing these things together, putting virtual environments in real places, these will all be things that we do with a standard platform and that might even involve changing what we think of as mobile phones and wearables. All these things are evolving together. It's an exciting time and I think being able to make content for it is always a challenge because we're always learning about the next platform and things like this but it's a real opportunity to be a storyteller, and to be at the forefront of something that no one is an expert in at this point, because it's so new.

Tonya Hall: It is and I would agree with you, the usability is so much easier with mobile. You said this is gonna really take off, change in the next couple of years, to me I think it should change immediately. There's some big hurdles that we have to overcome. What do you think is our biggest obstacle for augmented reality as it relates to brands and incorporating it? Is it the platforms, is it the mobile devices, is it content creation?

Peter Oberdorfer: Well I don't always agree with what the sort of the marketing side of what Apple says about what the best user experience is but Tim Cook did say that the best augmented reality experience is on the phone itself and I would agree. There are things like HoloLens and other headsets like Meta and things that are all amazing that I see those as really growing in enterprise, and institutional, and educational uses. Because right now, the price point of those, one of the challenges as you mentioned, is they cost $3,500 or $1,500 or something that's just above what the typical consumer would buy and so a lot of augmented reality faces the same HMD headset challenges that virtual reality does at it's highest dent. And then I don't think that the actual fidelity of it increases in line with the increase in cost yet.

We're really waiting for, things that look more like our glasses that overlay reality on top of them, at an affordable price point and that's four- to five-years away. But I do think that with the way it works on mobile devices now it's quite compelling and quite easy to use, so we've got a dearth of content. That's gonna the soft ground for the growth of AR, that's gonna allow it to move into the forefront and then it will start to flap, and faces challenges, once we really start turning that in wearables that's where all of these tracking things in a real environment, and making it uncannily real. Those are hard problems and that's something that's beyond content. That's really a platform problem and I don't think they're problems that won't be overcome, but I think those things are a few years away and will evolve sort of on a slow burner while we have these more kind of amazing consumer experiences in the short term.

Tonya Hall: When you talk about consumer experience, every industry is gonna have a challenge, because right now you're seeing augmented reality in automotive, you're seeing it in cosmetics, which are fun but then when you think about the practical use in maybe pharmaceuticals where you can really get true information where you can maybe talk to a virtual doctor or augmented reality answered questions, Q&A, on what you need. I mean is that something that you are looking into, is that something that you think is in your future?

Peter Oberdorfer: Myself and some of my group were a part of an external lab that worked on early HoloLens prototypes with Microsoft and some of the use cases were around things as you mentioned like health care or institutional and enterprise type of things and I think that's really where the highest end of AR is gonna take hold because it really does make sense for a hospital or something to have a piece of equipment like an HMD that is $3,500 and hooked up to a nice PC. That's where those types of costs don't matter as much and that's where I think those types of use cases that you mentioned are really relevant, for diagnosis and inventory checks and things like this where you can find out about these things as you're hands-free and doing other things.

That's gonna grow and grow quite rapidly, and maybe not have to wait four or five years. But where I do see a disconnect is where I go into the Verizon store or the T-Mobile store or whatever and get my $500 pair of glasses that do all the cool augmented-reality things that we're trying to think about now. Those types of cinematic experiences or entertainment experiences aren't gonna be available to us or branded experiences are gonna be in this sort of form factor for several years at a price point that we can afford. Right now you're looking at hospitals, schools, universities, that type of thing more who can buy a set of shared things for that institution rather than for individual consumer use.

Read also: Augmented reality: Oracle builds a compelling case

Tonya Hall: You're talking about some pretty rapid growth, and you're in an industry where you're gonna have to keep up and not only just from the technology side. How do you find the right employees? How do you find the right team to help support such a fast and growing industry?

Peter Oberdorfer: It's a good question. I come from sort of the film side, a lot of the tech that we do for film effects over the years it was similar sort of our problem solving and now the medium is essentially, I would describe it as real time visual effects and we use game-ified technologies like Unity and Unreal, and other types of real-time visualization engines for a lot of our solutions. That really is our paint brush, using that as our primary medium and making custom solutions around game engines and visualization engines in real time.

The equipment essentially changes around us. One year it's the Kinect, and another year it's HoloLens, another year it's a mobile phone with an AR experience. But what our paint brush is remains the same so we're still making visual real-time elements for all of these and the artists and technicians that do this are relying upon the same skill sets so anybody who works in the game industry really or in visual effects is pretty well seated for this in terms of content creation. Then we look at it as something that evolves, but evolves around us and is more about what type of display or container we put this in.

Tonya Hall: If someone wants to find out more about what you're doing, I mean I'm certainly fascinated by what you guys have done, and I was a big fan of your last campaign. I was certainly one of those people that helped bump those numbers. If somebody wants to follow you Peter, how can they do that?

Peter Oberdorfer: They can go to Tactic.Studio and they can see the 19 Crimes example you brought up that we did with J. Walter Thompson and Treasury Wine Estates. Or they can also, I don't know, see the other work that we do out there. We have a lot coming up in January. We're working on five other AR packs that'll be coming out in the new year, which we're really excited about in four different sorts of consumer items. I say just stay tuned and we'll continue to make stuff.

Tonya Hall: Please continue to make stuff. Thanks for your time and thanks for joining the show today.

Peter Oberdorfer: All right. Thanks a lot. It's great talking to you.

Tonya Hall: Thanks again Peter. And I'm Tonya Hall. You can find more of my interviews on ZDNet and TechRepublic.

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