Two years ago, when Covid lockdowns forced the closure of stadiums, arenas, and theaters, many live entertainment businesses were on the brink of collapse. Unable to sell tickets as governments banned both indoor and outdoor events, the industry suddenly had no way to make money. Companies in the sector lost $30 billion in 2020, according to estimates by trade publication Pollstar.
For UK-based event technology company Disguise, this meant the potential loss of many customers as they were forced out of business. In need of a way to provide financial security, it found one through a new extended reality, or xR product to help companies hold live events virtually.
Extended reality covers a wide range of technologies — including augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality — that can create immersive user experiences, placing customers in live events.
“The whole company got together and accelerated the development of a new technology — it was just a science experiment at the time — that would enable users to present the same stunning visual productions, but in a virtual environment,” says Fernando Cover, idyll CEO.
Using real-time graphics and camera tracking, Disguise’s xR software enables producers to create virtual shows and display them on LED screens. Cover explains that the technology primarily displays content “from a camera perspective” so that “what we see on screen is a fully immersive 3D scene that extends beyond the LED walls into physical space.”
“Actors can perform on a tiny LED stage, yet the xR can turn it into a full-scale virtual environment from a camera perspective — extending far beyond the walls of the set,” he adds.
Disguise xR proved an immediate success after its launch in 2020, winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the Innovation category this year.
She has a growing list of celebrity clients too. American pop star Katy Perry used the technology in May 2020 when sang “daisies” During the final of the TV show singing competition American Idol. The performance included Perry singing in a virtual world.
Billie Eilish was an early adopter of the Disguise xR. The Grammy and Oscar-winning singer used technology in October 2020 to perform 13 songs in a virtual concert titled where will we go?.
Disguise has also worked on shows for streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, as well as streaming for Eurosport, MTV and ITV in the UK. Coover says that demand for the technology has “skyrocketed” following Perry and Eilish’s offerings. It has been used in 600 productions and 300 stages.
He credits a thriving user community as key to the company’s success, describing it as “the vital link between the disguise and the end customer”. “As our biggest brand advocates and primary users of our technology, this community works closely with the Disguise team to test new software features and hardware products, and provide key feedback,” he notes. “Everything Disguise does, it does with the user community at heart.”
The roots of disguise can be traced back to the early 2000s, when friends Ash Nehru, Chris Beard and Matthew Clarke set up United Visual Artists, a creative technology company in London. They designed visuals for the 2003 Massive Attack tour Window number 100before working on concerts for U2 and American rapper Jay Z.
It was while developing videos for U2 vertigo Tour between 2005 and 2006 in which Nehru created software that enabled an Irish rock band to visualize content on a 3D stage before the physical performance took place.
Sensing that this technology would be disruptive to the live events industry, Nehru left UVA in 2010 and set up a new company dedicated to developing its software. It became known as Disguise from 2017.
This program is the bread and butter for masquerading as a business. Cover says it allows users to “pre-imagine and pre-program every pixel of the video file” so they can “validate ideas” and “deliver on schedule and to the maximum level.” “Think of some of the most amazing live shows I’ve seen, showing videos on large LED screens or projection screens – maybe the disguise was behind them.” He notes that Disguise has provided concert technology for artists like Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé, for festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury, and for stage productions like frozen And the Harry Potter and the cursed Child.
Cover joined Disguise in 2015, having previously worked in finance positions at companies such as Lidl, L’Oréal, Ultra Motor and A2B Bikes. His mission was to expand Disguise, which has since expanded to launch in Los Angeles, New York, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Auckland and Montreal. It has secured investment from private equity firm The Carlyle Group and video game developer Epic Games.
Coover admits that the company has had a “difficult financial period” due to the pandemic but should now be back on a “upward journey thanks to its innovations in an entirely new and growing market.” Turnover is expected to rise to £63.6m in 2022, up from £42.5m in 2021 and £20.6m in 2020.
But to continue to grow in the competitive and ever-evolving xR field, Disguise must overcome many challenges. One of the hardest things is educating producers about the value of extended reality and encouraging their adoption.
“Extended reality, as a technology, only appeared in production in 2019,” Coover notes. It’s relatively new, which makes it hard to impress big production studios who have an established green screen [technology] and challenging combos to take the leap and explore a whole new tech ecosystem.
“Although the benefits of extended reality far outweigh the initial cost, it requires a major cultural shift within the organization when it comes to replacing a single virtual studio with a new hard set for each show.”
The company has launched several initiatives to sell the benefits, such as allowing users to try Disguise’s software interface at no cost and offering free online training. Disguise has also expanded the accessibility of its software interface by launching it in six languages.
Realizing that there is a shortage of production talent in the global entertainment industry, the company is training future filmmakers, through its Virtual Production Accelerator programme. This provides budding filmmakers with the pre- and post-production knowledge to produce their short films.
The competition will only increase as the xR takes off. Data provider Statista says the market has grown 24.9 percent this year. Disguise responded by expanding its team, developing new products, and acting on customer feedback.
“We do our best to confront any criticism or challenge from our community head-on,” says Cover. “We are in close contact with our core users through various ‘internal groups’ to ensure that their thoughts and ideas are continually taken into account and that any issues or obstacles they may encounter are mitigated.”
He remains confident in the value his company delivers to customers, despite the emergence of competitors, and believes Disguise can remain competitive in the years to come.
“While there are other xR solutions on the market, Disguise has the most advanced and integrated offering, which means production can use it without worrying about items breaking,” claims Küfer. “With Disguise xR, customers can make changes to content easily and in real time. This is essential in the entertainment industry, where changes need to be made quickly.”