Tech met ‘Cool’ at Sónar Hong Kong, highlighting the need for creativity in technology

Kevin McSpadden

More music festival than startup event, Sónar was an excellent opportunity to see how technology can be used when it takes a backseat within an industry

Black jeans cut at the knees. Snapbacks and tattoos. Pierced lips, tongues, cheeks and necks.

More beautiful people in one location than should be allowed.

When the sun went down, the stunna shades went on.

The food area so thick with smoke even the occasional whiff of marijuana was drowned by an ocean of nicotine.

Sónar hit Hong Kong this weekend and in doing so brought ‘Music, Creativity and Technology’ the city’s Science Park facilities.

Friends gathered halfway up the outdoor auditorium to hang out, enjoying beats from DJ Shadow, Lady Leshurr and Evian Christ. Music fans and rave-type hipsters danced their way to a sweat-induced flu. Lovers populated the top rows, finding dark spots where they could be alone.

For tech people who may be used to a certain style of conference, this was not that. In fact, to call it a tech-event would be a stretch. It was a music festival that attracted technology-folks. And because of this, it was essential to drop all expectations for what Sonár should be, and open the mind to what it was.

It was not a place too see how technology could help an industry; but rather how an industry can implement technology to build cool and creative projects.

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Many times, the business of tech overshadows the artistry; or, at the very least, what artists can do with technology. To be blunt, one of the key takeaways from Sonár is that tech ecosystems across Asia could use an infusion of artists. Those types of people who make projects because they are cool and probably won’t make any money — but it is OK because they are artists and used to not having money anyways.

The most notable example of this was a 3D sound project (it would be a stretch to call it company at this point). The team created a circle that with a roughly 28 metre area. It then placed speakers around the diametre.

After the technology recognised their body, people could control the volume and pitch of the song with their hands. The right hand was volume and the left hand was pitch. When a high octave beat became prevalent, the person could raise their left hand to make the instrument take over, or lower their hand, to allow the bass to become the star.

The display was fun (and popular), but as we were waiting in the queue for our turn, it became fairly obvious that this technology would never sell. It could not work in a Sonár-type event because there are just too many people and the only types of people who could be called a ‘consumer base’ would be the stupid-rich who can just buy expensive toys without thinking much of it.

While the phrase is embroiled in terrible PR, this team of sound-enthusiasts exemplify the ideal of “do cool shit”.

The future of virtual reality storytelling

Despite being surrounded by the cool kids of Hong Kong, there was some nerdiness to find. Enthusiastic techies could sign up for workshops with hands-on learnings or attend “pallet chats”, whereby 10-12 people would gather in a circle, sit on pallet-chairs and listen to an expert discuss a subject.

(I missed the boat on the workshops, but after staring through the window, the lessons appeared to involve much soldering).

One of the hot topics at Sónar was the development of virtual reality — which makes sense considering the technology has fairly obvious applications in the creative world.

Also Read: Of the 17 Hong Kong startups on this list, mobile market startups get funded more

Brett Heil,  the Founder and Managing director of The Pulse, a VR-focussed creative agency, explained the challenges and opportunities facing the industry.

A serious challenge, he said, is that Hollywood is not bankrolling the “VR-experience”. It’s not surprising for a town known for reactionary investment strategies and Hollywood has always waited until something is a sure-fire success before supporting the project.

If Silicon Valley has grown to prominence by taking risks and embracing failure, Hollywood’s success has been defined by doing the exact opposite.

One of the interesting ideas for generating revenue is to approach VR like a cinema instead of a video game console. The average person is still not buying their own VR headsets, but there is a fair amount of interest in the technology.

So, what people are doing (like The VR Cinema in Amsterdam) is screening VR-specific films and selling tickets like a traditional cinema.

Which brings in the storytelling aspect of VR.

One strategy for VR storytellers, according to Heil, is to focus the narrative when necessary. For example, while it is important to have a 360 degree environment for people to explore, if there are important plot points, it is critical to keep the action within the 180 degrees looking forward.

It would be a bummer if the audience did see a major character die because they were investigating the pantry.

Believe it or not, most people actually do not turn their head all the way around when using VR. Instead, they usually stay looking forward and move their head left and right.

To mitigate for a person who is off in their own world and in danger of missing the plot, directors might have characters behind the plot direct the viewer towards the main action. (e.g. if this was a hypothetical VR Godzilla movie, the monster would be destroying buildings up front, but if someone is looking backwards, there would be people pointing and shouting that would make the person curious and turn their attention back to Godzilla).

Eventually the discussion evolved towards how AI will be used in the VR world (eye-tracking being the most likely use-case).

As VR technology evolves, it seems inevitable that some form of machine-learning will be implemented so the story can adapt to its viewer’s behaviour. If the AI see’s a viewers eyes drifting from the action, maybe it triggers a butterfly to fly through the peripheral vision and bring their eyes where they need to be.

Pretty neat stuff.

The Startups

There was a small startup-booth area that featured companies with an eye towards the creative industry. Three of the companies stood out as being particularly far-along in the entrepreneurship journey. Let’s take a look.

Insta360

This Shenzen-based developer of 360-degree cameras was showing-off its iPhone-attachment ‘nano’ version.

Rather than those little balls that need to be attached to a tripod and brought into the phone via a third-party connection, the Insta360 Nano attaches to the  iPhone charging-port for seamless integration. All the person needs to do is hold the phone up, snap a picture and boom! the 360-degree photo is already prepared for whatever use necessary (probably social media if we are being honest with ourselves).

Soundbrenner

Soundbrenner is a Hong Kong-based company that has created a wearable metronome for musicians. It recently raised a US$1.5 million and one use of the money is building its next version.

Also Read: This Hong Kong startup aims to cure jet lag and help you wake up earlier 

The Soundbrenner wearable can be used as a replacement for the traditional metronome during education and practice. The product stands out during live performances. All of the devices can by synced to the same beat and can be controlled by a “producer” via their cellphone. The device is designed to be no-frills in part to ensure it can take a beating and perform during an entire performance.

Nanoleaf

Nanoleaf is a high-tech ‘smart lighting’ company that can be mounted on walls and customised over a seemingly infinite amount of colour combinations. The company’s presence at Sónar made sense as the product could make the lighting at a club or concert pretty amazing.

The company targets mostly interior designers but a nice review in TIME Magazine highlights how it could be used for an individual home (night-lights, mood-lighting and even scheduled uses).

Sónar brought tech to the world of ‘cool’, but in doing so helped open my eyes to how technology can work as a secondary part of an industry.

Photos courtesy of Sónar.

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