Sphere there everywhere

Sphere there everywhere

A grey balloon started life as an arts project but it was soon coveted by rock stars and has the potential to become a commercial phenomenon. Kenny Kemp talks to its Edinburgh creators.

It is like having a swirling piece of the Solar System in your garage. In a dimly-lit Edinburgh lock-up, next to a bike shop, we gazed in awe at a spinning, coloured orb; luminous and surreal. This is a wonderful invention called the PufferSphere. Scotland must claim its origins because, while the two creative minds behind this visual experience hail originally from London and Sydney, it was devised here with the help of Edinburgh University. Firstly, no artificial stimulants were taken in the writing or preparation of this article. But the PufferSphere is a beautiful object which is already becoming a fixture at live events where an “experiential” sense of mood and occasion are the order of the day.

Rock band Coldplay love them, and Paul McCartney bought some for his world tour, while last year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Russia splashed out with them to brilliant effect. But this is only the beginning of the PufferSphere phenomenon – and it bodes well for Pufferfish, the Edinburgh-based business behind the spheres. For example, the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic would be the ideal showcase for an array of PufferSpheres; one representing every nation and every sport.

It could be Scotland’s graceful contribution to the Games. What is a PufferSphere and what is its purpose? Basically, it’s a 60cm - 4m diameter (grey polymer balloon or acrylic photoreactive) sphere with a powerful projector attached to the bottom.

The ball is inflated with air, or carefully mounted, and the projector – which gives off 5,000 -22,000 lumens (that’s a measurement of brightness on a surface) beams specks of colour designed on any graphics enabled computer. Using complex polymetric algorithms, the two-dimensional design is projected onto all of the inner surfaces of the globe. The software bends the colours onto the surface to give a fantastic moving effect. If you think about how the RBS’s logo is painted onto the grass of a Six Nation’s Rugby pitch, which is parallax viewing, then you can visualise how this occurs in 360 degrees – and brilliantly lit by a projector. Edinburgh-based Pufferfish is the creator of the spheres, while Coldplay have had a hand in the development of a robust sphere able to withstand the trials of a touring rock band’s lighting rig.

Chris Martin, who took several PufferSpheres on the Viva la Vida Tour in 2008 and 2009, described it as part of “a light show you’ve never seen before”. The two creatives behind Pufferfish are Ollie Collier and Will Cavendish, both now 30, and former Edinburgh undergraduates. Ollie, with curly hair and blond Biffy Clyro beard, is a reticent business figure who studied music technology at Edinburgh University. The final element of his course was a real-time design research and development project.

“A part of this was looking at how to unite graphics and sound,” he says. “I wanted to make digital content more ‘experiential’. This started the project that ultimately led to the creation of Pufferfish.” In their final undergraduate years, Ollie and architecture student Will Cavendish, now with trimmed Thor Heyerdahl facial hair, began working on how to liberate digital content from a flat computer screen into the third dimension. The pair collaborated on an interactive art installation in spring 2003.

“It was an art project, there were no commercial aims whatsoever,” says Ollie, “We wanted to explore the ‘experiential’ nature of digital media – or the lack of it.” The installation was taken to an arts festival in Sao Paulo in Brazil which sparked interest in what is now known as “generative-design”, an emerging digital art form that is attracting a generation of digitally-savvy designers.

“It was really interesting for us,” says Ollie. “We went across and gave a talk. That process helped us distil the key messages. It was very well received and it was then we began to consider some aspects of this commercially. Up until then we hadn’t done this.” In Ollie’s view, music and motion graphisc on a computer screen are not well represented. He felt there was more that could be done.

“A standard computer doesn’t do music and other digital content justice; there was so much more potential in the presentation of creative work,” he says. “Moving a mouse or tapping a keyboard seems hugely limiting. We wanted to create an installation that gave people a much broader or deeper experience.” He is a composer who plays concert piano, loves Bach and the complex music of Squarepusher, but loathes Stockhausen. He started a physics and music degree before concentrating on digital music technology. He played and composed in the experimental music festival call Dialogues with other people from the burgeoning experimental music scene.

“I spent a lot of time playing and studying Bach’s work,” he says, sitting in the windowless Edinburgh meeting room. “I hate all the abstract theory – which I why I dislike Stockhausen.

“What’s fundamental to me is the beauty of the music. I’m more interested in the end sound of the music.” Will is from a scientific family with a pedigree stretching back to William Cavendish, the brilliant physicist who gave his name to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, whose first director was Edinburgh-born James Clerk Maxwell, its professor of experimental physics. It wasn’t music but three-dimensional architectural design for structures that fascinated Pufferfish’s chief technology officer. Ollie remains excited by how people – especially children – interact and experience the installation, calling it a “digital campfire”, while Will and his technical team have been examining how the technology will evolve to become more complex. There are applications for new kinds of learning and therapy involving touch and sight. Edinburgh University plays a crucial role in turning these visions into something much more commercial.

When the company began, the university agreed to give Ollie and Will an extra three months as pseudo staff, housed in the basement of Milson House, in the architecture department. The department had a studio free during the summer which allowed the pair to finish off their project for Brazil. Since then, Dr Mark Wright, an academic in the university’s Informatics department has been involved in strategic research incorporating Pufferfish’s technology working with the founders.

“We started exploring the commercial side of the project,” says Ollie. “That was difficult at first because we had to concentrate on a single idea and put other ideas onto the back burner for a while.” The first creation was a full-size Formula One simulator in a sphere, used at trade shows and F1 events, which led directly to the formation of the limited company. It also highlighted a major issue for the fledgling company; the size and footprint of any commercial installation. Increasingly, the duo began to think about the business value. Ollie undertook a masters degrees in interactive and digital design at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication in London while Will started on Edinburgh University’s pre-incubation scheme (EPIS), which has just closed. Pufferfish had a small loan from EPIS which was £7,500.

“Unfortunately, the pre-incubation scheme closed this year, it’s a shame because it was a way to gain your commercial legs and have an academic and commercial mentor to help with developing the idea,” says Ollie. When Ollie and Will returned to their drawing board in late 2005, they applied for a Smart: Scotland award and an Ideasmart award, now replaced by Starter For Six.

“These two awards addressed two components of the original project,” says Ollie. “The Smart: Scotland award was looking at the simulator style and the components, while the Ideas: Smart award was specifically for the kind of sculptural display element. It is that sculptural display element that we brought to the market first.” Ollie and Will still had a surfeit of avenues to explore but they focused on expanding one big idea commercially. They won the Ideasmart award which gave them £15,000, while Smart: Scotland would deliver them £50,000, with the provision that they could match this with funding from elsewhere.

The Smart: Scotland awards, set up by Scottish Enterprise, have been a significant bonus for commercially viable Scottish firms spinning out from emerging technologies. Among those benefiting have been the likes of Scapa Technologies, Aquatic Diagnostics, Crusade Laboratories, Giltech and Renewable Devices Swift Turbines – good company for Pufferfish.

“Winning the awards was very important to us,” says Will. “It was third-party validation of what we were doing commercially. If you don’t go through the process, you don’t know if you’re idea is just hype or whatever. You’ve no idea about the context until someone from outside looks at the real viability.

“In terms of our intellectual property, we protected what we could. We knew early on there was potential and part of the Smart award was an IP review to protect any patents, etc.” Pufferfish was set up in 2004 but the company lay dormant until after the awards.

Will says: “We had to see that there was serious scope to support ourselves financially in terms of salaries. The company was probably viable in late 2005, with our award officially confirmed in 2006.” Ollie moved back to Edinburgh and joinedthe EPIS scheme on a temporary basis and this allowed a commercial mentor.

“He was invaluable in helping me set up the business side of the company,” Ollie recalls. But to unlock the £50,000 they required seasoned investors to share their vision. The company approached Andy Crofts who had experience of working in a number of technology companies.

“We liked Andy’s approach: and he liked ours, so we started working together,” says Ollie. They then approached Professor Peter Denyer, the co-founder and chairman of MicroEmissive Displays which created the tiny digital phone camera. The brilliant Edinburgh professor and business figure became an investor and then chairman. Will recalls the first time they met.

“Peter came in and spent a couple of hours with us and listened to what we were doing. He understood it from day one. He could see something of himself in what we were doing.” Denyer’s link with angel investors Braveheart Ventures helped match up the Smart award funds. Denyer’s premature death from cancer, aged 56, in April this year remains a massive shock to all at Pufferfish with Ollie and Will grateful for Denyer’s direction and technical understanding. Ollie also learned to enjoy sailing the waters of the west coast of Scotland, thanks to Denyer’s invitation to join him on his yacht Tigger Too, based at Ardfern.

“One of the key things about Andy and Peter joining us was that from day one we were into selling products, and making sure that sales cycle was going on from the beginning,” says Ollie. With more than £100,000 of investment behind them, Pufferfish was able to build a commercially viable prototype with the first PufferSphere rented out in August 2006.

“As soon as the company had the resources we moved pretty quickly to become a company operating in the real world,” says Ollie. “What’s the point of a company developing anything if no-one’s going to pay for it? Everything stemmed from that and all our development was led by the market.” There was a lot of unpaid demonstrations but the Big Chill music festival was the first paying PufferSphere customer. Since then the orders books have grown. In August 2007, the spheres returned to the Big Chill’s Sanctuary stage, looming over the audience and the crowd like a technicolour moon, as bands such as Coldcut, Future Loop Foundation, LJ Kruzer, Juana Molina and Roedelius took to the stage.

In Stockholm, in early 2008, two spheres were used to stunning effect at the national rock music award ceremony and celebration called Rock Bjomen. In March 2008, a giant 3D oceanographic model was used at the National Oceanography Centre Open Day in Southampton, displaying data compiled by the centre’s Dr Andrew Coward, including changing sea temperatures, levels of salinity and the speed of ocean currents.

In May 2008, Google's Zeitgeist Europe events showed off two PufferSpheres in orbit above the crowd with live video feeds of the performers being run through the sphere.

An eye-catching sphere was used by fashion designers at Aquascutum during London Fashion week in 2009, then Pufferfish was called in for the stunning Eurovision stage at 2009’s contest.

There were six, two-metre spheres inflated with air amid all the stunning pyrotechnics and lighting above the 16,000 audience at the Olympiyski Stadium in Moscow. Everywhere people are drawn to them in an almost spiritual way. Closer to home, Pufferfish is involved with InSpace, the public gallery within Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics. As part of a scheme run by Arts and Business Scotland, Pufferfish and the InSpace team, led by Prof Jon Oberlander, are working collaboratively on a number of research and public projects.

Pufferfish sponsor the Inspace project bypart financing a PufferSphere and support, primarily in the form of specialist consultancy for the PufferSphere throughout its use during the Inspace 2009/10 arts programme. In return Pufferfish’s growing band of techies, such as Tim Prochak, are given access to School of Informatics research into the ways in which people interact with and behave around the sphere. Inspace’s other research partners include NASA, Google and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and there are connections with the Edinburgh International Science Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Since Peter Denyer’s death, Pufferfish has moved on with Iain Mackay, a former vice-president of Wolfson Microelectronics in Edinburgh stepping up from his non-executive director role to chairman, while Geoff Kell – an experienced company director and former CEO of Factonomy – has joined to manage the business. The company has a turnover in the region of £1.5m but this could jump substantially if a breakthrough is made in mass producing the spheres.

Commercially, Pufferfish is working to increase sales and leasing of its large and medium spheres, with the digital signage market being a key growth area in the company’s sights, but it is also interested in developing smaller spheres that might be used in the domestic market – and could become the Christmas phenomenon in tens of thousands of homes in 2011, before the Olympics. A PufferSphere in every home would make Ollie and Will very happy.