caseStudies

Case Study – Portal Entertainment take storytelling into the 21st Century

How would Alfred Hitchcock tell a story today?

This was the apparently simple question that started Portal Entertainment managing director Julian McCrea on his journey to Hollywood, with support from Innovate UK.

“Alfred Hitchcock, son of a greengrocer, started off in theatre and moved into film, the new medium of his age, changing how we told stories. In November 2010, we asked ourselves the question: How would Alfred Hitchcock tell a story today?” Portal Entertainment explains on its Facebook page.

Their answer? “We don’t think it would be a film. We think it would be a story that used all the devices we had available to us today to tell that story. And we would take part in them.”

The last “we”, here, is important. It stands for Portal Entertainment, of course. But it also includes you, the viewer. What the company envisages, in other words, is the audience taking part in these stories via the mobile phones, tablets and laptops that surround us.

They call it “immersive entertainment”: “Stories where the audience take part in them. Stories that put the audience at the heart of the story; stories that leave you with emotional, empathetic experiences that maximise the tension and suspense inherent in great storytelling.”

Portal Entertainment was formed in November 2010. In 2012, using research on human-computer interaction funded by The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, McCrea won an IC tomorrow Innovation in Film and TV competition, using the £30,000 prize to develop a prototype product called Thrill Me, which measures the anxiety on people’s faces.

Later that year, Portal entered an Innovate UK Digital Convergence competition and was awarded

£54,000 towards a £74,000 feasibility study. The company used this 12-month project to develop a prototype for Immersion Go, their first proper product.

Immersion Go is, according to Portal, “the storytelling platform for the digital age”. It allows users to tell stories over multiple platforms (web, mobile and tablet), changing the direction of those stories based on the audience’s anxiety level, which it can gauge by reading the viewer’s face using their device camera.

The 12-month project also allowed Portal to develop its first immersive story, The Craftsman, for iPad, a part-book, part-film, part-game experience that turns the reader into the main character. “No two people will get the same experience,” McCrea told The Guardian.

The Guardian, in fact, was one of several media to cover the launch, comparing The Craftsman to a massively extended take on the choose-your-own-adventure books of the 1980s.

“‘You’, as a fully paid-up character in the drama, can sign online petitions on fictitious websites and receive cryptic messages on your mobile phone from other characters, while the events you attend in the story pop up in your real-life calendar, as the app’s creators attempt to ‘bleed’ the story into your everyday life,” The Guardian said, clearly impressed.

Portal has since agreed deals with Warner, to develop a horror digital series for mobiles and a five-minute horror attraction for virtual-reality devices; Fox, for the use of the Immersion Go platform; and Disney / Pixar.

This last deal may be the most commercially significant of all the three, opening up the world of advertising, with Portal’s technology being used to measure “purchasing intent” for the 3D film Inside Out.

“Facial recognition is just the first step. Now we’re trying to pick up what the eye is looking at on screen and how attentive you are,” McCrea said. To this end Innovate UK has awarded Portal £88,000 towards a cognitive vision feasibility project to add to the company’s mood data.

Portal has now opened a Los Angeles office to handle these US deals, the end of a remarkable five-year journey that has seen McCrea go from working on the BBC’s Doctor Who Facebook page to striking deals with the Hollywood elite. The company also employs seven staff in offices in Birmingham and London.

McCrea says none of this would have been possible without Innovate UK. “What Innovate UK allows you to do is innovate and experiment with really risky ideas,” he says. “I’m just super-excited that Innovate UK exists. I love the fact that it gives me the opportunity to have crazy ideas that then become reality.”

Portal Entertainment’s mission, as laid out on its Facebook page is “To create Vertigo for the digital age”. It’s a bold statement, referencing one of Hitchcock’s most-loved films, and it is going to take a lot of doing.

And yet in 2015 the media environment is ripe for this kind of innovation. We are watching more content than ever on smartphones and tablets – in China, for example, 25% of all video is viewed on tablet and smartphone, according to the Ooyala Q2 2014 Global Video Index Report – and we increasingly expect to be involved in what we are watching, whether it is by voting on the outcome, submitting our own photos and videos or taking part in the Twitter conversation around live programming.

At the same time, the idea of interactive storytelling is starting to gain serious traction. The New York Times is one notable media company to experiment with the concept, using multimedia tools and interactive features on acclaimed online features like Snow Fall. (There is, incidentally, a whole page on nytimes.com rounding up its adventures in Interactive Storytelling, Graphics and Multimedia from 2014.) Gaming, too, is becoming ever more lifelike and story based, with the worlds of cinema and games edging ever closer.

The idea that the next Vertigo could be designed for tablets and smartphones with viewer interaction driving the story is not so farfetched, then, and Portal could be at the heart of it.

 

@julianmccrea

 

Written by Ben Cardew

Company Spotlight: Snap Fashion.

Our latest blog post heralds the arrival of a new feature on the Tenshi grants blog, the Company Spotlight. We would like to thank writer Ben Cardew for giving us a great insight into Snap Fashion.

“Has mobile penetration plateaued?” So ran the headline from online retail association the IMRG in August as it released the latest figures for shopping via mobile devices, which showed that 42% of UK online sales were via mobile and tablet devices in Q2 2015-16, a figure unchanged from Q1.

These figures do not, of course, tell the full story. Tina Spooner, chief information officer at IMRG, explains that sales via mobile phones are actually still growing, but this has been offset by the slowing tablet market. “It may be that the next mobile growth spurt will be purely driven by increasing consumer confidence in using smartphones for online shopping,” she adds.

For this to come true, though, mobile retail is going to have to pull its socks up. We may use our mobile phones for almost everything these days but shopping by them remains a pretty horrible experience, all tiny screens, titchy boxes and 1,001 conflicting apps.

Into this field comes Snap Fashion, a fashion retail app that was developed by 27-year old Computer Science graduate Jenny Griffiths after attracting Innovate UK funding and matching private investment in a Launchpad competition. Leading magazine publisher Time Inc – home to Marie Claire, InStyle and Look – has since invested in the company.

The company’s aim, essentially, is to make shopping for clothes online a great deal easier, more natural and fun, whether it be by smartphone app or via your browser.  “We want to put the fun back into online shopping, making it fast, fulfilling, and the best way of discovering new brands,” the company says.

It does this by allowing users to upload (or “snap”) pictures of clothes they love to Snap Fashion, which will then search for similar clothes on sale via 250 high-street and online retailers.

If you find something that takes your fancy you can view it in more detail, add it to you Wishlist, share it with friends, “re-snap” it and search for a new set of similar results or – crucially – buy it in just a couple of clicks.

The company’s iOS app goes even further, building “a unique colour palette” based on an individual snap. “We don’t just find similar items… we make putting together the perfect outfit a breeze, for men and for women,” Snap Fashion explains. “Take a photo of a colour or pattern that you love, and you can decide whether to match it, clash it or complement it from our Snap Colour Palette; a world first.”

Other features include sales alerts, which let you know when items on your Wishlist drop in price, and “browse” and “trending” pages on the Snap Fashion website, which let you browse clothes in a more traditional manner and check out the most loved items on Snap Fashion, giving a social media tinge to the company’s offer.

Snap Fashion is nothing if not bold. “Snap Fashion is changing the way that the world shops online,” the company claims – slightly prematurely – on its website. And yet this is undoubtedly a very clever product, one that aims to solve the eternal problem of matching the outfit you have in your head with retail reality.

It is hard to argue, in fact, with the logic of Snap Fashion’s mission: “Snap Fashion believe that men and women create their own styles, select their own looks and shop their wardrobes, based on the things they see and like,” it says. “It seemed obvious to us that if people are shopping in the real world using their eyes, we should really be shopping online using pictures.”

The reaction among media has been warm too. The Sunday Times said that “Snap Fashion will change the way we shop”, while Cosmopolitan reckoned, “It’s so good you’re probably downloading it as we speak.”

More importantly, fashion retailers have been quick to get on board. In total, Snap Fashion has more than 250 retail partners, including high-street chains such as French Connection, Gap, Topshop, Topman and Uniqlo, online retailers including Net-A-Porter and Mr Porter, and department stores such as Debenhams, House of Fraser, John Lewis and Selfridges.

These partnerships have helped to bring the number of products in the Snap Fashion catalogue to “hundreds of thousands”. But herein lies the company’s main difficulty: hundreds of thousands of items is impressive. But compared to the hundreds of millions of different items of clothing that are out there in the world, it is still peanuts.

What’s more, as Snap Fashion acknowledges, “Visual search is a strange beast, and it’s not 100% accurate all of the time”. So users may be faced with the odd strange search result, particularly if the photo they have uploaded is taken at a strange angle or in difficult lighting.  As you might imagine, in the irascible world of the internet this has got some people quite annoyed.

Generally, though, the reaction from users has been positive. Helen Watt, commenting on the Snap Fashion app’s Google Play listing – admittedly not the most reliable place for reviews – says, “Really cool app. Very stylish and easy to use. Have found some great buys already.”  Luke Francis, writing in the same place, claims to have used the app to find “the perfect birthday present for my girlfriend… a dress to match her favorite bag.”

Get its offer right and Snap Fashion could be onto something very lucrative indeed. eMarketer claims that global commerce was worth $1.3 trillion in 2014 – 5.9% of the total retail market worldwide – led by China and the US. Meanwhile, online fashion sales in the UK were said to have reached £10.7bn last year, up 14.5% on 2013, according to Mintel.

If Snap Fashion can improve the experience of shopping online – and in particular on the ever-present smartphone – then it could claim an important part of this booming industry and re-pay Time Inc’s investment in spades.

Add to this Snap Fashion’s own designs on the high street – it was recently awarded a  £1m contract under Innovate UK’s ‘re-imagining the High Street’ SBRI programme, which will fund development of Snap InStore, a search tool for use in physical fitting rooms – and you have a company well worth keeping a fashionable eye on.

@SnapFashion

Case Study – Tom Beardsmore from Coatsink

Continuing our series of case studies, we have asked another of our previous clients to answer a few questions about the grant application process, working with Tenshi Grants and to pass on some advice and insight to others who may be looking to apply for grants. This post features Tom Beardsmore from Coatsink, a passionate and talented games development team working on games for PC, VR, console and mobile.

Q1. What challenges or needs did you face that led you to search for a solution?

We have income from clients and publishers who fund us to develop games, however we also develop our own games for which we need funding. We can fund some of our games from the profits from our work for hire business, but that money is always tight and we are always looking for extra funding. At around the same time, we realized that along with our games we were making technology that could be useful to other developers as well as ourselves, which could be a secondary revenue stream for us if we could find the funding to develop the technology as well as our games.

Q2. What attracted you to working with the Tenshi Grants team to assist in your application writing process?

We heard about Tenshi Grants when we met one of their team at an event, and found out about technology innovation grants, which seemed to fit with our desire to develop technology.

We decided to work with them because not only did they have a good track record of writing and winning applications, but they actually understood our industry and market. The team were from the games industry and run their own businesses as well as doing Tenshi Grants, and when we had our first call to discuss the project, it became clear that this knowledge would made them easy to work with, and able to show our project in the best light in the application.

Q3. What has been the most valuable part of the Tenshi Grants service for you?

The fact that they really make the application process easy and clear. They were in regular contact, but didn’t take up anywhere near as much of our time as I thought they might for a process like applying for a grant. They also were very good at explaining what was needed, and really helped us to refine the project and our offering as we went along.

Q4. What sort of companies would you recommend Tenshi Grants to after working with us and seeing first-hand how we can help?

Any company who is developing technology around games or similar industries and needs funding. I would recommend that those companies just contact them and have a chat, as you may be eligible for funding and not be aware of it. In particular if you haven’t had much experience of raising funding or public grants then getting Tenshi Grants to help would be strongly advised – I don’t think we would have had anywhere near as much chance of getting our grant if they hadn’t helped us.

Q5. Throughout the process of searching for relevant grants through to the application process, what did you learn that you feel would be useful for others applying?

That grant applications are all about saying the right things in the right place. Knowing how to do that comes from experience as well as skill, so getting someone on board who can do that massively increases your chances of success.

Grant applications also tend to be very long winded and time consuming, which isn’t something we wanted to spend our time on, we felt it was better to give it to someone else to do.

Q6. What advice would you give to others thinking of applying for grants?

If you are eligible for it, go for it! It is free money and can help you to raise more funding by building your credibility. But make sure that your project does fit the grant you are applying for, make sure you are clear about what you are aiming to achieve with the project, and make sure you have the time to deal with (or get help with) the application process and the admin once you have received your grant.

Q7. What have you been able to achieve after your successful grants application?

We are just completing our first grant funded project, which we will release as our first technology product in 2017, providing our second revenue stream and enabling us to fund the development of more of our own games.

Q8. What advice would you give to individuals/companies who are unsure if the right type of funding exists for them?

Speak to the guys at Tenshi Grants, they are really helpful and will quickly tell you what might work for you.

 

Case Study – James Henderson from Brightbook

As part of our new series of blog posts, we have asked some of our previous clients to answer a few questions about the grant application process, working with Tenshi Grants and to pass on some advice and insight to others who may be looking to apply for grants. First in our series is James Henderson from Brightbook, a book keeping solution for small business owners, freelancers and contractors.

Q1. What challenges or needs did you face that led you to search for a solution?

We needed funding to take our startup to the next stage (it had been entirely bootstrapped until that point). The money we required was too small for VC’s and too large for Angel Investors so that made things challenging. I discovered InnovateUK and their Smart awards but felt that we’d struggle to apply successfully without help.

Q2. What attracted you to working with the Tenshi Grants team to assist in your application writing process?

I was introduced to Tenshi by a colleague with a great deal of knowledge of the InnovateUK application process.
I knew that Tenshi partners had experience having been through the process themselves as well as then helping entrepreneurs with their applications. Knowing they had huge experience on both sides of the fence was really attractive as I knew they’d add value.
At first we had a call where our concept was interrogated in detail. Following a few emails and another call Tenshi said that they would take our project on. (Being ‘chosen’ by Tenshi felt like an endorsement of the idea even before we’d applied for the grant).

Q3. What has been the most valuable part of the Tenshi Grants service for you?

By far, extensively testing the validity of what we wanted to do. The whole process forced us to articulate our thinking. They’ve been so easy to work with, they felt like part of our team and did the majority of the heavy lifting.

Q4. What sort of companies would you recommend Tenshi Grants to after working with us and seeing first-hand how we can help?

Obviously any business involved in SaaS Fintech. Though actually, I’d recommend any technology business; any business that is doing something novel but needs help articulating it in the simplest terms.

Q5. Throughout the process of searching for relevant grants through to the application process, what did you learn that you feel would be useful for others applying?

Grants are not easy; most of them are massively complex and not suitable or attractive to startups. They’re very hard work and take up a significant amount of time, just to apply. Even applying you have a very small chance of being successful so you need to be absolutely sure your idea is valid and that it is truly innovative. Tenshi helps bring you that insight and clarity (and importantly, reassurance)

Q6. What advice would you give to others thinking of applying for grants?

Winning a grant will help you get a step closer to your goal. Applying for a grant is not simply about filling in a form. Yes, they’re complicated and it requires hard work, but don’t be put off because that’s exactly where Tenshi specialise.

Q7. What have you been able to achieve after your successful grants application?

It just adds fuel to our already burning motivation. It’s helped generate some traction. We’ve been chosen to join the Open Data Institute’s Start Up program and Web Summit have just selected us to participate and exhibit on the ALPHA startup track in Dublin. All of these things put us on people’s radars and helps instill confidence.

Q8. What advice would you give to individuals/companies who are unsure if the right type of funding exists for them?

On thing is certain, there is funding out there that is an ideal fit for your business. You just need to do some research to find it, and understand what it entails.