Two years ago, when Covid lockdowns forced the closure of stadiums, arenas and theaters, many live entertainment businesses were on the brink of collapse. With governments banning both indoor and outdoor events, tickets could not be sold, the industry suddenly had no way to make money. Businesses in the sector lost a collective $30 billion in 2020, according to estimates by trade publication Pollstar.
For British equity technology company Disguise, this meant the potential loss of many customers as they were forced out of work. Needing a way to provide financial security, he found it through a new augmented reality, or xR, product that helps companies host live events virtually.
Augmented reality covers a broad set of technologies—including augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality—that can create immersive user experiences and engage customers in live events.
“The whole company came together and accelerated the development of a new technology – one that was just a science experiment at the time – that would allow users to deliver the same visually spectacular productions, but in a virtual environment,” says Fernando Küfer. Disguise the CEO.
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 basically renders content “from the perspective of the camera” so that “what we see on the screen is a fully immersive 3D scene extending far beyond the LED walls in the physical space.”
“Actors can perform on a small LED stage, but the xR can transform them into a vast virtual environment from the camera’s perspective – extending far beyond the walls of the stage,” he adds.
The Disguise xR proved an instant hit after its launch in 2020, winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the innovation category this year.
He also has a growing list of celebrity clients. American pop star Katy Perry used the technology in May 2020 when she sang “Daisies” during the televised final of the singing competition. American Idol. Perry sang in a virtual world.
Billie Eilish was another early wearer of Disguise xR. The Grammy and Oscar-winning singer used technology in October 2020 to perform 13 songs in a virtual concert called Where are we going?.
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 “didn’t skyrocket” after Perry and Eilish’s performances, says Küfer. It was used in 600 productions and on 300 sets.
He sees a thriving user community as key to the company’s success, describing it as “a vital link between the 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 critical feedback,” he notes. “Everything Disguise does, it does with its user community at heart.”
Disguise can trace its roots back to the early 2000s, when friends Ash Nehru, Chris Bird and Matthew Clark formed United Visual Artists, a creative technology company in London. They designed the visuals for Massive Attack’s 2003 tour 100th windowbefore working concerts for U2 and American rapper Jay Z.
It was during the development of the videos for U2 Dizziness tour between 2005 and 2006, when Nehru created software that allowed the Irish rock band to visualize content on a three-dimensional stage before the physical show took place.
Sensing that the technology would be disruptive to the live event industry, Nehru left UVA in 2010 to start a new company dedicated to developing his software. Since 2017, he has become known as Disguise.
This software is the bread and butter of Disguise as a business. It allows users to “pre-visualize and program every pixel of the video file in advance” so they can “validate ideas” and “deliver the show on schedule and to the highest standard”, says Küfer. “Think about some of the most visually stunning live performances you’ve seen, with video on large LED or projection screens – there was probably a disguise 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 theater productions such as Frozen and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Küfer joined Disguise in 2015, having previously worked in finance roles at companies such as Lidl, L’Oréal, Ultra Motor and A2B Bikes. His job was to scale the disguise, which has since expanded to include performances in Los Angeles, New York, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Auckland and Montreal. It secured investments from private equity firm The Carlyle Group and video game developer Epic Games.
Küfer admits that the company faced a “difficult financial period” due to the pandemic, but should now be back “on the upward path thanks to its innovations in a completely new and growing market”. Turnover is forecast to rise to £63.6 million in 2022, up from £42.5 million in 2021 and £20.6 million in 2020.
However, in order to continue to grow in the ever-evolving and competitive xR field, Disguise must overcome several challenges. One of the hardest will be educating producers about the value of augmented reality and encouraging them to adopt it.
“Augmented reality as a technology only appeared in production in 2019,” notes Küfer. “It’s relatively new, so it’s challenging to convince the big production studios that have an existing green-screen [technology] and hard steps to take the leap and explore a whole new technology ecosystem.
“While the benefits of augmented reality far outweigh the initial costs, it requires a significant cultural shift within the organization to replace one 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 the Disguise software interface for free and providing free online training. Disguise has also expanded access to its software interface by launching it in six languages.
Recognizing that there is a shortage of production talent in the global entertainment industry, the company aims to train the filmmakers of the future through its Virtual Production Accelerator Program. It provides aspiring filmmakers with the pre-production and post-production knowledge to create their own short films.
However, competition will increase with the arrival of the xR. Data provider Statista says the market has grown by 24.9 percent this year. Disguise responded by expanding its team, developing new products, and acting on customer feedback.
“We will do our best to meet any criticism and challenge from our community directly,” says Küfer. “We stay in close contact with our core users through several ‘insider groups’ to ensure their thoughts and ideas are constantly taken into account and mitigate any issues or obstacles they may encounter.”
He remains confident in the value his company provides to customers, despite the emergence of competitors, and believes Disguise can remain competitive for years to come.
“While there are other xR solutions on the market, Disguise has the most advanced and integrated offering, meaning manufacturers can use it without worrying about component failure,” Küfer claims. “With Disguise xR, customers can make content changes easily and in real time. This is essential in entertainment where you need to make changes on the fly.”