An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

I personally think that, even if you’re not in a technological role or following an engineering path, you should get a basic grasp of the underlying engineering concepts and how the technology works. A lot of what we’re doing right now in VR/AR/MR is pushing the creative boundaries of what is thought possible. The technology is moving so quickly, that if you don’t understand the fundamental principles of that technology, and where the advancements and limitations are, you’re not going to be able to push the creative limits and will quickly fall behind.

The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Davenport, VP Global Marketing at Pixotope.

Ben is a B2B marketer with a keen interest and understanding of the technologies that underpin the media and entertainment industry. During the past two decades, Ben has played a key role in some of the most complex and progressive file-based media solutions and projects in the industry while enabling leading media & entertainment technology vendors to differentiate their brands and products. Having previously headed up Portfolio & Marketing Strategy for Vidispine — an Arvato Systems brand, Ben now works as VP Global Marketing at Pixotope, the leader in live augmented reality and virtual production solutions.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

Growing up in Bristol, in the south west of England, my childhood was dominated by music — my whole family is musical and indeed my dad was a music teacher. But I was also attracted to technology. I was lucky that the school where my dad worked had great facilities, and I remember clearly when a shiny (well, grey) new midi synth and Atara loaded with C-Lab Notator arrived (Notator became Notator Logic under eMagic, and in time became Apple’s Logic Pro and Garageband). As a teenager I was fortunate to get work experience with Coach House Studios, then home to the band Massive Attack, and that led me to follow a career path into sound recording. I attended the University of Surrey, studying on the Tonmeister course which, as well as covering sound engineering in detail, introduced a lot of technical concepts from film and video. As part of the course, I spent a year working in industry, specifically with the Pro Audio Product Marketing team at Sony Europe and that’s really what set me off on a marketing career path in the media industry.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Now, more than ever, it’s really important that we recruit and retain top talent in our industry and especially in the areas around XR/AR/Mixed Reality where media is competing with gaming and other applications of the tech. However, like many industries, we’re not great at imparting management and leadership skills to staff as they progress through their careers in the industry. Especially as I’ve moved into leadership roles, I’ve been drawn to a number of books around culture and leadership and I really appreciate Lencioni’s style of writing. I think “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” should be mandatory reading for any team leader or manager, but his other books are very useful too. Written as a “fable” they’re all incredibly easy to read and I’ve not met anyone who hasn’t been able to identify with one of the characters in each book, possibly more than one, and at different points in their career.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

I can’t think of a specific story that inspired me to follow a career in media production — or now virtual production — but one of the amazing things about what we do is that there’s always something inspiring in terms of what our colleagues, partners or customers are doing. For example, the way The Famous Group used AR for fan engagement last year by creating a giant panther, jumping around the Carolina Panthers stadium, or how Video Canarias and the Weather Channel use Virtual Sets to create really engaging explainers for topical news and weather. Working primarily in the media and entertainment space, there are so many creative and inspiring people and projects.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

Some 15 years ago now I was working for a technology vendor rolling out a new product. We had managed to sell a particularly large deployment to a public broadcaster in Europe but we had a lot of stability issues with the initial deployment. To minimize the disruption to their productions, the broadcaster decided to buy a second “mirror” of the system that they could failover too. However, in synchronizing the two systems, we managed to corrupt tens of thousands of hours of programming. As problems go, it was a pretty big one. I remember sitting down in a meeting with the customer the day we discovered what had happened and it goes without saying that they were pretty upset. However, the project lead from the customer started the meeting by saying “Nobody died here today”. It was an incredible lesson in keeping perspective and it set the tone for a productive meeting — one focused on finding solutions to the mess we’d created and ensuring it didn’t happen again. In the end we had an incredible partnership with that customer and they became a great reference site, but those words — “Nobody died here today” — and that meeting have always stuck with me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It wasn’t funny at the time, but I remember once almost 20 years ago being on the phone and bad-mouthing my boss, Russ, to then discover that he was stood right behind me. It’s only funny now because Russ and I became and stayed friends and still catch up regularly. The lessons learnt were first that you never know who’s listening — directly or indirectly — and second to always try to stay positive about colleagues. Our industry is pretty small and there is no sense in burning bridges.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people it’s hard to think of one in particular but if pushed, I’d probably have to single out my significant other, Kirsty. I mentioned earlier that we often fail to give people the tools and training they need to be good managers — but Kirsty is in fact currently a Leadership and Management trainer. Her coaching and advice have been invaluable, not necessarily in securing “the next role” but certainly in making a success of the roles that I’ve had.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

It might be important to start by saying that when we talk about AR and MR in the Pixotope context, we’re talking about the mixing of virtual and real objects for television production. One of the reasons that it seems exciting right now is that although a lot of the techniques and technology we use have been around for a while, advancements in computers (GPU and CPU), alongside the rapid development of game engine technologies, mean that now we are able to bring virtual elements to life in “real time” — i.e. with no pre-rendering or post production. That brings a dynamic element to productions using Mixed Reality that makes the content far more engaging. I’d cite the Carolina Panthers again as an example there.

One of the other applications for the technology is in what we often refer to as XR (extended reality) — productions that use large LED volumes to project the virtual environment around the (real) talent and other either physical or virtual props. Famously, the Mandalorian uses this technique extensively, with one of the largest and most expensive LED volumes deployed. In creating the Mandalorian, the producers have found that scenes take 30–50% less time to shoot using XR when compared to scenes shot on a soundstage or back lot. In the wake of the pandemic, where on and off-screen talent have been working extremely long hours and in the context of threatened strikes, those kinds of reductions in time on-set are game changing.

Finally, I think the opportunities for advertisers to engage with audiences and localize content are huge. Another example from The Famous Group here in their collaboration with Colorado Avalanche and Chipotle in May 2022 — the mixed reality “ad” was entertaining and engaging.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

One of the thoughts I’ve always had about the moon landing conspiracy theories is that if they did fake it, it probably would have cost more back then than actually doing it. That’s no longer the case, though, and with the upsurge in misinformation and fake news in the last decade, the ease with which you can mix photo-realistic virtual elements with real footage obviously could be cause for concern in the wrong hands. Technological solutions to identifying manipulated media are relatively widespread but, as with all misinformation, the real challenge is the platforms and channels that are used to spread such media.

As for another industry challenge, it would be the lack of talent — there simply aren’t enough people that understand how to use and implement the technology. Pixotope is actively working on this and has created an education program, directly engaging with educational institutions, to give them access to the technology and experts that can help train the next generation of Virtual Production professionals. It’s a long game, and the shortage of talent in the interim is a concern, but it’s absolutely necessary to support the growth and adoption of these technologies.

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

This is a tricky question to answer since Pixotope, and our customers, are focused on media and entertainment. That said, it’s our belief that Virtual Production (the use of AR/MR/XR in media) will simply become Media (or video) Production. Video has become such an integral part of all types of work, in communications, training etc. and it follows that the virtual element will follow too.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

As with many things in the “early adopter” stage, there’s a belief that you need a “Virtual Specialist”. As I mentioned above, we believe that Virtual Production will simply become Media Production, and for that to happen, the “virtual” toolkit needs to be just a part of any production. Of course, some skill sets, such as 3D artists creating the virtual assets, will be new roles in the production team, but for others — lighting, cameras, set builders etc. — it will simply be another tool in their arsenal.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The VR, AR or MR Industries?”

Number one: even when working in a virtual world, you need to deal with real people. So like any other industry, people skills are essential. However, the nature of working in VR/AR/MR is that, being virtual, you’re more likely to be working with people from different countries and cultures. This makes for a rich and rewarding work environment, but does require that you have an understanding of different cultures and how to work alongside them. Even when speaking the same language, things can get lost in translation — there’s a well-known meme of “What a Brit says, versus what you think they mean, versus what they actually mean”. Stereotypes can be harmful but there is an element of truth in there.

Second, I personally think that, even if you’re not in a technological role or following an engineering path, you should get a basic grasp of the underlying engineering concepts and how the technology works. A lot of what we’re doing right now in VR/AR/MR is pushing the creative boundaries of what is thought possible. The technology is moving so quickly, that if you don’t understand the fundamental principles of that technology, and where the advancements and limitations are, you’re not going to be able to push the creative limits and will quickly fall behind.

Next, you need to be able to have fun and love what you do. Working in VR/AR/MR, and more broadly in media and entertainment, many of the most important events (e.g. sports etc) happen in evenings and weekends and wherever you are in the industry, it’s likely you’re going to face some pretty odd hours at times to get the work done. It’s really important that you enjoy what you do and have fun doing it together with your colleagues. Most companies in the industry are pretty relaxed — I was once threatened with expulsion from a customer site when I turned up in a suit and tie — and they’re nice places to be, but if you’re not having fun, it could quickly turn into a chore.

Fourth, in the words of Bill & Ted “be excellent to each other”. Relative to most, it’s a pretty small industry and things move really quickly. Your ally today could be your competitor tomorrow and vice versa. There’s also no “traditional” paths for promotion, so your report this year could well be your boss next year. It’s therefore best just to be friends with everyone, even your fiercest competition — newcomers to the industry are always surprised when I suggest the best way to get competitive info is to walk up to the competition, introduce yourself and ask them what they’re up to.

Finally, as a small industry, there is a strong sense of community and it’s important to give back to that community whether that’s by giving your time to training initiatives, participating in industry charity events, becoming a mentor in one of the industry programs or contributing to advisory boards of industry associations. I have a strong sense that the industry I am in is my industry and as such, encouraging others to join it, or changing things I don’t like about it are absolutely my responsibility. Not only that, it is through such activities that I have found and/or been recommended for a number of roles, including my current one.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As with most of the tech space, there is a significant lack of diversity, both gender and cultural, in our industry. That’s something I feel strongly about addressing and I actively support organizations within the industry that are working to create a more diverse community. Understanding what the word “privilege” means in the context of diversity and inclusion. But perhaps more importantly, understanding and being aware of one’s own bias are not only crucial in tackling the issue of diversity, but can also be hugely beneficial. For example, I’m sure we’ve all fallen foul of affinity bias in a recruitment process — it’s much easier to identify with a candidate or a hiring manager if you share similar traits, but we also know that more diverse teams — character, gender and/or culturally — perform better. So that would be movement, to enable everyone to understand and be aware of their bias.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

He’s rather busy at the moment, but I’m fascinated by Volodymyr Zelenskyy — I’d love to understand how a comedic actor, playing a president, not only followed a path to become the actual president, but also where and how he acquired the leadership skills that have been so visible and powerful during the invasion of his country. However, if allowed to indulge myself, a second person I’d love to sit with would be Dame Steve or to give her her full name Dame Vera Stephanie Shirley. Having arrived in the UK as a child refugee on the Kindertransport in 1939, she had an incredible career, including leading the team that designed the black box for Concorde, and was a pioneer for women in technology — an amazingly inspirational person.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

Makers of The Metaverse: Ben Davenport Of Pixotope Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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