Two years ago, as Covid lockdowns forced the closure of stadiums, arenas and theatres, many live entertainment businesses were on the brink of collapse. Unable to sell tickets as governments banned indoor and outdoor events, the industry suddenly had no way to make money. Businesses in the sector lost a collective $30bn in 2020, according to estimates from trade publication Pollstar.
For UK events technology company Disguise, that meant the potential loss of many customers as they were forced out of work. Needing a way to provide financial security, it found one through a new extended reality, or xR, product to help companies put on live events virtually.
Extended reality covers a broad set of technologies — including augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality — that can create immersive user experiences, putting customers into live events.
“The entire company pulled together and accelerated the development of a new technology — one that had been a mere science experiment at the time — that would enable users to deliver the same visually spectacular productions, but in a virtual setting,” says Fernando Küfer, Disguise chief executive.
Using real-time graphics and camera tracking, Disguise’s xR software allows producers to create virtual performances and display them on LED screens. Küfer explains that the technology essentially renders content “from the camera’s perspective” so that “what we see on screen is a fully immersive 3D scene extending far beyond the LED walls in the physical space”.
“Actors can be performing on a small-scale LED stage, yet xR can turn it into an expansive virtual environment from the camera’s perspective — stretching out 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.
It has growing list of celebrity clients, too. US pop star Katy Perry used the technology in May 2020 when she sang “Daisies” during the final of singing competition television show American Idol. The performance involved Perry singing in a virtual world.
Billie Eilish was another early adopter of Disguise xR. The Grammy and Oscar-winning singer used the technology in October 2020 to perform 13 songs in a virtual concert titled Where Do We Go?.
Disguise has also worked on shows for streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, as well as live broadcasts for Eurosport, MTV and the UK’s ITV. Demand for the technology “skyrocketed” following the Perry and Eilish performances, Küfer says. It went on to be used in 600 productions and on 300 stages.
He credits a thriving user community as being key to the company’s success, describing it as “the vital link between Disguise and the end client”. “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 essential feedback,” he notes. “Everything Disguise does, it does with its user community at the heart.”
Disguise can trace its roots back to the early 2000s, when friends Ash Nehru, Chris Bird and Matthew Clark created United Visual Artists, a creative technology company in London. They designed visuals for Massive Attack’s 2003 tour 100th Window, before working on concerts for U2 and American rapper Jay Z.
It was while developing videos for U2’s Vertigo tour between 2005 and 2006 that Nehru created software that enabled the Irish rock band to visualise the content on a three-dimensional stage before the physical show took place.
Sensing that this technology would be disruptive for the live events industry, Nehru left UVA in 2010 and set up a new company dedicated to developing his software. It became known as Disguise from 2017.
This software is the bread and butter of Disguise as a business. It allows users to “pre-visualise and program each pixel of a video file in advance” so that they can “validate ideas” and “deliver the show on schedule and to maximum standard”, Küfer says. “Think about some of the most visually stunning live shows you have seen, featuring video on large LED or projection displays — Disguise was probably behind them.” He points out that Disguise has provided concert technology for artists such as Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé, for festivals such as Coachella and Glastonbury, and for theatre productions such as Frozen and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Küfer joined Disguise in 2015, having previously worked in financial roles at companies including Lidl, L’Oréal, Ultra Motor and A2B Bikes. His task was to scale 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 company The Carlyle Group and video games developer Epic Games.
Küfer admits the company faced “a difficult financial period” because of the pandemic but should now be back on “an upward journey thanks to its innovation in a completely new and growing market”. Turnover is forecast to rise to £63.6mn in 2022, up from £42.5mn in 2021 and £20.6mn in 2020.
But, to keep growing in the constantly evolving and competitive xR field, Disguise must overcome several challenges. One of the toughest will be educating producers about the value of extended reality and encouraging them to adopt it.
“Extended reality, as a technology, only emerged in productions in 2019,” Küfer observes. “It is relatively new, which makes it challenging to convince big production studios that have existing green-screen [technology] and hard sets to take the leap and explore an entirely new technology ecosystem.
“Even though the benefits of extended reality far outweigh the upfront cost, it requires a significant cultural shift within the organisation when it comes to replacing one virtual studio for a new hard set for each show.”
The company has launched several initiatives to sell the benefits, such as allowing users to try the Disguise software interface at no cost and providing free online training. Disguise has also widened access to its software interface by launching it in six languages.
Recognising there is a shortage of production talent in the global entertainment industry, the company is working to train film-makers of the future, through its Virtual Production Accelerator Program. This provides budding film-makers with the pre- and post-production knowledge to create their own short films.
Competition will increase, though, as xR takes off. Data provider Statista says the market has grown 24.9 per cent this year. Disguise has responded by expanding its team, developing new products and acting on customer feedback.
“We do our best to tackle any criticism and challenge from our community head on,” says Küfer. “We keep in close contact with our core users through several ‘insider groups’ to ensure their thoughts and ideas are continually taken into account and mitigate any issues or obstacles they may encounter.”
He remains confident of the value his company provides to customers, despite the emergence of rivals, and believes Disguise can remain competitive in years to come.
“While other solutions for xR are on the market, Disguise has the most advanced and integrated offering, meaning productions can use it without worrying about elements failing,” Küfer claims. “With Disguise xR, customers can make changes to content easily and in real time. This is essential in entertainment, where changes need to be made on the fly.”