Immersive director André Elijah on staying ahead of the curve with VR and AR
The founder of André Elijah Immersive is at the cutting edge of working with clients on AR and VR projects. We pick his brains to find out where this fast-changing tech is heading and whether creatives should be jumping on board.
If you don't own a VR, AR or mixed-reality headset, you might be fooled into thinking this much-discussed tech has failed to take off. Indeed, with Meta now shifting its focus from the metaverse to AI, some predict it's all over for virtual and augmented reality.
To which immersive director André Elijah is here to say: nonsense. In fact, he says, VR and AR are on the rise and more than likely to explode in popularity over the next year or two.
He begins by pointing out one compelling fact. "If you take a look at the numbers that have leaked, the Meta Quest 2 alone has sold more than the Xbox X and S series of consoles," he says. "There are 20 million units out there. That's a lot of people with headsets for something still in its infancy."
That doesn't mean the tech is perfect, of course. "I think that with the Quest Pro headset that launched last year and what they've teased of their upcoming device, Meta is trying to figure out what the balance is between work and play," André says. But hey, early smartphones and laptops weren't perfect either… and look where we are now with them.
Plus, even if Meta doesn't manage to move its tech-forward, consider all the other companies likely to jump into the space. "Right now, all eyes are on Apple's WDC event on 5 June and what they're going to be announcing in terms of their headset," André notes. "So it's been a bit of a slow burn, but we're very much getting there."
All this means brands now recognise the value AR and VR can offer their audience. And so, André's immersive studio has been building up a long client list of people wanting to try things out. It includes everyone from tech giants such as Google, Meta, Snap and PlayStation to big brands such as NFL, Coca-Cola, Nissan and Kia, as well as musical artists such as Beyoncé and Deadmau5.
So what do these client projects look like in practice? Last year, for example, André helped activewear and lifestyle brand Alo Yoga launch an augmented reality activation for New York Fashion Week.
"They were showing off their new lines at Fashion Week, and we worked with Snap to build an augmented reality mirror," recalls André. "People could walk in and try on these clothes in a virtual mirror months before anyone else was able to. Things like that certainly drive value, and they're fun experiences, so we're seeing brands taking advantage of it more and more."
The studio is currently working directly with Snap on a new AR project that sounds super intriguing. "It's an augmented reality sketch comedy series," reveals André. "So we're taking traditional comedy and bringing it into reality and seeing how that plays in your physical space and in your world."
With these kinds of projects, there's no rulebook as yet, rather a lot of experimentation. "We're still trying to figure out what works in collaboration with the client," he says. "Some things are more commerce focused; some things are more entertainment-focused. Right now, AR is really on everyone's phone, but it'll be on everyone's faces soon enough."
So it's a creative challenge, but one that André very much relishes. "In my opinion, if companies and brands aren't working in immersive right now, it's going to be to their detriment because they won't have those understandings in future," he argues. "These are things you learn by doing and having a track record of trying different things out and seeing what works and doesn't. So if you want to prepare for the future, this is the moment to take advantage."
He loves working in this space because, in his own words, "I've just always been a nerd." André originally started working in tech within the world of corporate finance. "I was a systems analyst, working in high-frequency trading, which involved lots of really fun server stuff," he recalls.
"I then got into film, which involved more crazy tech. It was when 4K cinema cameras were first coming online, and the Red Digital Cinema camera arrived and changed everything. Luckily, I got my hands on the first two Reds that landed in Canada. So I had to figure out the workflow and how that would slipstream into several productions."
André spent some years working in film, but then everything changed again. "I'd always loved video games," he explains. "And I noticed that the Kickstarter for the original Oculus was getting everyone excited. Then Microsoft validated that with their HoloLens device and showed off the Minecraft demo, which was mind-blowing at the time. So I figured: this is the new thing. And if I'm reacting to it like this, everyone else will. So I should probably get into a space and figure it out. Since then, it's been a roller coaster ride."
He launched André Elijah Immersive in 2017, and it's now one of the world's most respected studios in the immersive space. In the last few years, André has developed a live performance platform for Deadmau5, built out the next-generation product for Chatroulette (called Chatroulette Next for VR), received an Epic Mega grant for an upcoming VR god game tackling the climate crisis, built internal immersive prototypes and rendering systems for the automotive industry, and was an AR Creator In Residence at Snap.
Now in 2023, his company is embarking on another exciting new chapter following the launch of its first game: a VR version of the 2019 New Blood Interactive title Amid Evil.
The original game was a cult hit: a dark medieval romp for old-school fans of '90s video games such as Doom, Heretic, Hexen and Quake. "As a flat-screen game, I played the hell out of it," André recalls. "And I thought: does that have a chance of finding an audience in VR? I was inspired by the ports of old games by Team Beef that allowed you to play them on Quest 2. It was a very laborious process, but thousands of people were going through it to play these old games, so there was clearly a market there.
"So I spammed the hell out of New Blood Interactive for 18 months, and finally, they said, 'Yes, let's do it.' We released the game on Quest 2 and Steam two years later. We showed it off at PAX East, a gaming event in Boston this March, and the lineups were huge. The entire day was madness, with so many people trying to get their hands on this game."
In short, Amid Evil has taken André Elijah Immersive from a client-facing agency to a fully-fledged game studio. He plans to develop more games in the future while continuing his client work. And he plans to remain agile by keeping things lean in terms of employee headcount, at least for the foreseeable future.
"Right now, we've got a really tight SWAT team of eight people," he explains. "We take on everything from the games to the marketing activations to speculative stuff in R&D projects. And we all work well together under pressure. So if a client comes along and says: 'We need it done in two weeks', it's possible."
And all the while, he's keeping an eye on where the latest tech is heading, even before new devices are released. "We partner with the big tech companies like Qualcomm, Snap and Meta," he explains. "And we explore their new upcoming features and SDKs to ensure that when they ship, they're ready for the rest of the developers to take on.
"That means we're in a good spot to get our eyes on a lot of stuff before it launches," he adds. "We get in there early and just open up a project and see what does and doesn't work. And then, if it breaks, is that something that we can fix on our end? Or should we take it back to the platform holder and say, hey, everyone else is going run into this; you might just want to fix it on your end to save everyone time?"
"In short," he concludes, "we want to be on the cutting edge. And we want to know what's coming. So we just get into as much as we can."