A major trade and investment event focussed on creative and emerging technologies took place at UK House: The Commonwealth Business Hub, during the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games on Wednesday 3rd August 2022.
The aims of the event included showcasing innovative new creative technologies, and creators from the UK and India linking games engines, Web 3.0 and 5G to the metaverse, and spotlighting opportunities for tech and digital in the West Midlands, from the region’s role as a 5G multi-city test bed to the ‘Silicon Spa’.
Watch a short video from the day below, or you can register to watch any of the day's sessions on demand.
Or read about some of the highlights from the morning plenary session below. Other sessions from the day discussed Geospatial AR and interactive sports and Midlands growth content companies and the Ones to Watch.
The day's proceedings were kicked off by Janet Hull, Industry Lead, CIC CreaTech. She welcomed delegates and explained the CIC’s role at the event was to offer “unique opportunities to gain insight into the UK’s cutting edge tech and creative innovation in the CreaTech space.” (Read more about how the CIC is supporting UK CreaTech).
The focus of the morning session was on opportunities in UK-India trade and investment.
Alan Gemmel, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for South Asia, said there was “incredible strength in the UK-India corridor”.
“And we see incredible strength in the Midlands part of that corridor. There is great leadership in this region. I’m also delighted to be here at this sectoral event with some of the most exciting businesses in the country.”
India was aiming to be a 1 trillion economy by 2025 and had more than 100 tech unicorns (businesses valued at more than $1bn each), he said.
The country was home to great businesses such as the telecoms company, Reliance Jio, as well as advanced plants in oil refining, automotive and broadband fibre manufacture.
“There is just the most incredible shift in India 4.0 in terms of manufacturing.”
The recent visit to India by the UK Prime Minister had been accompanied by deals with an estimated reported value of £1bn. Talks on a wider UK-India free trade agreement were progressing with the aim of “creating a new trading environment” to remove hurdles to future business partnerships between the two markets. Beyond the major cities, India’s long-term growth could come from its smaller cities and the rural population.
Underlining the attractions for overseas investors in backing the UK’s CreaTech businesses, Dr George Windsor, Director of Research, Tech Nation, presented data on investment growth in UK CreaTech companies.
The value of the UK CreaTech ecosystem has increased by 161% since 2017, according to Tech Nation, the growth platform for tech companies that has traced the rapid expansion of the CreaTech category developing at the interface of creativity and technology.
UK CreaTech businesses innovating in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), software as a service (SaaS), mobile and virtual and augmented realities, were cumulatively valued at $95.3bn in 2021, Tech Nation calculates.UK CreaTech employment has also risen by nearly 200% in five years to reach 95,000 in 2022.
Dr Windsor said the majority of funding for UK CreaTech businesses still came from UK-based venture capital firms. This is different from UK Tech generally, which is mostly funded by international VCS, and Dr Windsor argued that increasing the proportion of international funding in the category could further accelerate UK CreaTech's growth.
He said: “Despite already representing more investment than UK EnergyTech or InsureTech, CreaTech is still a great growth opportunity.
“CreaTech is a hotspot for investment, particularly domestic investment. But growth could be furthered by an injection of international capital which could ultimately have mutual benefits.”
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Next, Esra Kasapoglu, Director of AI and Data Economy at Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, announced a £30m programme to support the UK’s most innovative creative industries businesses. The first funding call in this programme is due to open later this year.
The announcement follows a successful pilot last year, where Innovate UK supported over 130 CreaTech businesses, from music to fashion and games to theatre. Past projects it has supported include the RSC’s high tech version of 'The Tempest' and a tech-enhanced Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Analysis of the organisation’s funding had shown that 45% of applications were led by women and Northern Ireland had the same success rate as London.
Connecting to the session’s UK-India theme, she said: “India is one of our priority territories. There is huge potential for businesses to take part and form partnerships”.
Focus then shifted to the West Midlands, identified as the UK’s fastest-growing tech region, with a particular strength in games development around Leamington Spa (known as Silicon Spa).
The strengths the region offered investors, entrepreneurs and partners were outlined by a panel: Mike Lewis of the West Midlands Growth Company (Moderator); Sarah Windrum, Chair, Warwickshire & Coventry LEP; Yiannis Maos, CEO, Birmingham Tech Week; and Suzie Norton, Executive Lead, Create Central.
Ms. Windrum said the region had built on the success of early adopters such as the Darling brothers, founders of Code masters, to build its talent base, through schemes such as NextGeneration Skills, and by supporting incubator and other working spaces for innovative growth businesses. It also campaigned for financial incentives to invest, such as the UK’s tax reliefs on video games creation.
The availability of co-working spaces, such as One MillStreet in Leamington Spa, was also cited as another resource for innovative businesses in the region.
Suzie Norton emphasised the role of collaboration in CreaTech with regional organisations from film, TV and games working alongside specialists in augmented reality or AI.
The region was looking to develop a studio in virtual production, she said, an area that had become mainstream in the TV and film sector but could also be used by other industries with production requirements.
Yiannis Maos said across the region there was an acknowledgement of the importance of developing the local skills base to supply growth companies. Within an hour’s drive of Birmingham city centre there was access to 300,000 graduates, and Birmingham was the most diverse city in the UK.
He said: “The universities play a key role in this. What I’m seeing is them leaning in to understand what are the needs of organisations and develop curricula and programmes around that.”
Mr Maos highlighted the potential to attract diverse people and retrain them to work in new growth areas.
Ms Norton also underlined the region’s diversity as an advantage, saying “We speak 100 languages in this city. That has to drive innovation.”
For the remaining session before lunch, chaired by Rupert Daniels, Director, Digital, Education, Creative and Sports, DIT, the conversation moved onto the metaverse and its implications for brands and businesses.
It featured participation from Jessica Driscoll, Head of Immersive, Digital Catapult; Julian Randall, Global Strategic Partnerships, Unity Technologies; and Sairam Sagiraju, Co-Founder, Meraki VR Studio.
Digital Catapult’s Ms Driscoll said there was no standard definition of the metaverse. But many descriptions had features in common, including the use of future networks, immersive technologies, blockchain ledgers, and much greater integration across areas where teams had traditionally worked in silos.
She said that even at its early stage of development, the metaverse had raised questions about the ease of rights licensing for metaverse content, the need for consumers, teachers and parents to have access to tools for creating relevant content, and the importance of ensuring that the audience equipment to access metaverse content was accessible for all. For instance, she said equipment such as AR glasses and haptic tools needed to be widely accessible and headsets should be smaller for women and children.
She said this emerging category had the capacity to affect brands and businesses in different ways, including via enhanced user engagement, improved remote working and better collaboration, learning and training usages, branding and marketing opportunities, and the creation of new revenue streams.
“My message to you”, she said “is get involved and get into the metaverse.”
Julian Randall of Unity Technologies, which provides a popular 3D development engine, said the technology was already used in many different contexts from product simulation and design collaboration, and in virtual environments employed by brands such as Disney, Nike, and Audi. Integration was the main challenge.
His advice was summed up as: start with the problem you are trying to solve; develop a meaningful position associated with your brands; and find your own path.
“The metaverse is not a destination but a journey, a transformation.”
The trajectory of Meraki VR Studio, the third organisation represented on the panel, bore this out. Co-Founder Sairam Sagiraju described how the company had moved from its origins as a VR cinema business to explore other applications of immersive technologies, including virtual meetings and market research incorporating heat maps and eye tracking to record consumers’ behaviour in virtual spaces.
He also outlined the potential for 3D virtual implementations to be used in therapeutic treatments for people with neurological conditions and weak social cognition skills.
The discussion that followed drew attention to
· The role of common standards to allow interoperability across devices and environments and ensure people’s data was transferable. There will be ‘walled gardens’, but also roles for companies to ‘provide the plumbing’ to connect different platforms. Developers will also want to build once and deploy to many different platforms.
· The industry will need to ensure there are the skills to meet demand for CreaTech. The games industry is best equipped for talent, but these people are being poached by other industries.
· To meet skills demands, India has a large animation talent and the Indian Government is putting in resources to re-skill people for the metaverse. The UK also has a strong record of ‘de-risking’ innovation by using accelerator programmes and innovation funding.
· The strong cultural ties between the UK and India should facilitate collaboration on metaverse projects. The two countries recently signed a memorandum of understanding on mutual recognition of qualifications designed to encourage greater employee mobility.
The next session dealt with the creative potential of the metaverse, again chaired by the DIT’s Director Digital, Education, Creative and Sports, Rupert Daniels.
Mr Daniels explained the DIT’s role at the event, saying: “One of the reasons that we are doing the Commonwealth Business Hub is as part of the legacy programme so that the Commonwealth Games acts as a platform and acts as a way we can meet new people and we can forge new relationships, not just across the Commonwealth but across the world.”
Sol Rogers described recent projects from Magnopus including an award-winning, large implementation around the Dubai Expo 2021, creating a digital twin of the Expo’s physical structures and contents, and allowing consumers to enter it as a digital avatar and interact with a variety of digitally enhanced features.
Mr Rogers summed up the company’s creative approach to the metaverse as: “For us it is about connected spaces. Connected spaces are the binding blocks between our physical reality and our digital reality.”
For Melanie Wong, global group planning director of VCCP, which describes itself as “a challenger agency for challenger brands”, there was a danger that brands could be caught up in the hype surrounding the metaverse, without asking, “How do you make this incredible new technology mean something?”
She said a tie-up between the Grand Theft Auto game franchise and the music star Dr Dre, which enabled gamers to find unreleased music tracks from the hip hop artist within a virtual space, was an example of where the audience’s experience was improved by taking part in the metaverse. This was the kind of thinking behind the agency's work recreating the 02 arena in the game Fortnite.
Her advice to brands contemplating metaverse offerings was to ask:
· Is it better than In Real Life?
· Does it let your business express more dimension?
· Does it make you feel anything?
KV Sridhar, Global Chief Creative Officer of Nihilent and Hypercollective, which brings together a change management company and an innovations agency, explained that humanising technology was part of its mission.
Mr Sridhar said: “Today’s brands exist in three different worlds – physical, virtual and emotional. It was easy in the industrial age; there were only products. The difference between one product and another is the emotional.”
“Too many brands have a more transactional relationship with consumers than emotional connections. It is very, very important that we serve an emotional purpose in people’s lives. If we don’t, we will remain as products.”
Images from UK House: The Commonwealth Business Hub, Credit: Department for International Trade