Immersive Design Studios places exporting at the start of its thinking

With near clairvoyance, Thomas Soetens and his partner Kora Van den Bulcke are confident they are not only witnessing a renaissance in the converging worlds of international art, culture and business, they are helping lead the way.

In stadiums from Toronto’s AC Centre to Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, their firm’s high-definition interactive 3D projections are transforming pre-game entertainment. Similarly, in museums from New York City to Europe, and in global corporate conferences, their technology is redefining ways that content is delivered and experienced by audiences. And now, in their latest achievement, their stagecraft will soon enable prospective homebuyers to guide themselves on a lifelike virtual tour of what will be the world’s tallest residential tower project, now under construction by the Lodha Group in Mumbai, India.

Soetens, a visual artist by training, and Van den Bulcke, an architect, are the creative and entrepreneurial force behind Montreal-based Immersive Design Studios.

“What did it mean to be an artist in the renaissance? They were immersed in music, politics, technology and business. This is where artists are positioned again today,” says Soetens. “With technology, we are empowered to once again be renaissance artists.”

After establishing a respected new-media artists’ collective in their native Belgium and earning acclaim for leading-edge digital artworks, the couple saw a new way forward: turn their artists’ collective into an enterprise. With that, they targeted Montreal as the ideal location for their firm.

“We identified Canada as a country that was seriously supporting innovation, not just talking about it,” says Soetens, who adds with visible pride the couple has since become Canadian citizens. “We were convinced that from both a human capital and open-mindedness perspective, and with close proximity to local gaming companies and the U.S. market, that Montreal was the ideal place to start this company.”

In 2006, Immersive Design Studios was founded. Two weeks later, the firm landed its first paying client: Deutsche Bank, which commissioned Immersive to produce a digitally enhanced platform for a senior management conference. (See Five Questions below.)

Since then, Immersive has sold its technology and services in the U.S., Canada, India, South Korea and across Europe. “We have three significant projects in Canada, but 90% of our income is foreign. There is no downside,” says Soetens.

Like other clients, Deutsche Bank saw an opportunity to have Immersive create a ground-breaking audience experience using the firm’s lead product: Canvas, an image processing software built on video game engine technology.

Designed for large projection surfaces such as sports arenas, architectural backdrops, meeting venues and experience centres, Canvas projects stunningly lifelike and interactive imagery.

Among the Deutsche Bank corporate event’s features, Canvas enabled an executive in Hong Kong to appear in holographic reality on a stage in New York and interact directly with the audience.

“Canvas brings in the creative factor so that images become part of and transform the surrounding architecture,” says Soetens. “Where previously PowerPoint was a means to convey information, now we are able to share a sense of reality and enable the audience to participate in someone else’s sensibilities.”

Soetens says he and Van den Bulcke were first exposed to game engine technology 15 years ago. “We were interested in exploring how we could create hybrid environments that connected the virtual and the physical worlds.”

They since spent 15 years developing and refining Canvas, which he adds can now be easily used by anyone with a background in computer animation.

Today, Canvas’s 3D graphics are so compelling that when Immersive’s fiery pre-game show for the Montreal Canadians was unveiled on the Bell Centre’s ice surface, it became the first ever pre-game show to be broadcast on national TV.

In the Lodha Group’s new custom-built circular presentation centre in Mumbai, visitors will explore life-sized interactive scenes portraying more than 70 different interconnected settings in and around the residential tower complex. Among the highlights, when a visitor enters a suite, she can change channels on a virtual TV broadcasting live programming. Virtual mirrors reflect visitors’ images, bringing them further into the environment. The view from the penthouse can be experienced with alternate backdrops of all four seasons.

“This is the ‘Holodeck,’” says Soetens, harkening to the concept portrayed in TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Unlike experiencing virtual environments through VR goggles, which are isolating by design, Canvas enables audience members to interact with one another and their virtual environment simultaneously.

“Lodha Group understood that doing VR in groups and having social interaction while you are in a virtual reality environment would not work with goggles on.”

For Soetens, Van den Bulcke, their team and investors, human connectivity is among the key differentiators that speak to Immersive’s budding global potential in entertainment, corporate events, real estate and the art world.

“As artists, we never lost the human factor when it came to developing technology. It resonates constantly in what we do and why we do it,” says Soetens. “That overlap also exists in how the art world and the corporate world are interacting, working together and how they influence one another.”

Five Questions with Immersive Design Studios Co-founder Thomas Soetens

1) What was your first export sale?

It was a Deutsche Bank senior management conference in New York City.


2) How did that first export opportunity arise?

We had just finished a project for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

It was a big success and the museum director introduced us to Deutsche Bank. It was a very nice overlap between the artistic and corporate environments. Both wanted something on the bleeding edge of technology development, something that had never been done before. We developed the senior management conference using our Canvas technology, the same as we had used in the MOMI project.


3) When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you had known then?

We started doing international work at Immersive 10 years ago. As artists, we’ve always looked at the world internationally and embraced a necessity and meaningfulness to see things in a global way. When you touched digital media back then, you made an assumption that this was something that could grow beyond borders. Today, it is even more so. Technology is inherently intended to go across borders and grow on a global scale.


4) How has the trading world changed since you started in business?

Globalization and the rise of India and China over the past 10 years have significantly changed our focus in terms of what environments we should focus on for business. The U.S. has been and will continue to be an important market for us, but projects expecting the highest level of innovation are not necessarily happening there any more. The emerging markets don’t just want to catch up; they want to go over the top. They have a bigger appetite for innovation. Our Lodha project in Mumbai – a presentation centre for the world’s tallest residential tower – is on the leading edge.


5) What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?

First and foremost, your product must serve a global need and be capable of being executed internationally. Sometimes people create a product and then ask ‘How do I export this?’ You have to look at it the other way around. Exporting should be part of your thinking from the start.

Exporting starts with R&D. It is about building products with an inherent consideration of a large scope of necessities and cultural differences – a design sensibility that can be moulded and adapted to needs around the world.

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