Mike Todd is the CEO and co-founder of Near-Life™. In this article, he explains Near-Life’s origins and how the company began its mission to enable anyone to make interactive content easily.
Do you remember Dragon’s Lair?
If you grew up in the eighties and spent any time around arcade games, there’s a good chance you will. Its most recent high profile name-check was in Stranger Things: a nod to its enduring pop-culture legacy. And there’s talk of a film in the works.
I remember it particularly well. Near my home on the outskirts of Manchester, England, one of our local stores had a handful of arcade games you could play and Dragon’s Lair just stood out. It was so unique.
I would’ve never dreamed it at the time but over three decades later, I can draw a line from those childhood days, through experiences with the United Nations, international humanitarian response and film and television – to what we do at Near-Life™ today.
Check out our Dragon’s Lair interactive scenario created using Near-Life™ CREATOR.
Back in the 80s Dragon’s Lair was credited with re-invigorating an ailing arcade industry: on the backfoot since the rise of consoles. Its innovation was to combine the animated storytelling of Don Bluth with interactive gameplay. It worked through the use of laserdisc technology – if you made your move at the right time, you would skip to the correct outcome. The game was one of the earliest – and most famous – examples of a genre that is now known as Full Motion Video or FMV.
FMV games combine the art of film with the interactivity of games. In their most common form, they tend to link video sequences using a ‘choose your own adventure’ style approach to decision making. The choices you make affect how the story unfolds, as with the books of the same name.
However, it wasn’t just high-profile, blockbuster games and consoles that defined the nascent 80s tech scene – there was also the parallel DIY aesthetic of home computing and the world of bedroom-coding upstarts. PC mags were filled with code to build your own games and people like Matthew Smith and Tim and Chris Stamper, in the UK at least, became punk-programming icons.
Indeed, in the you-can-do-it-too spirit, many early ‘home computer’ games for the likes of the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 often had some fairly rudimentary authoring feature that allowed you to create your own games – no BASIC required!
That democratic spirit always resonated with me – technology empowering us to unlock our own creativity. Many of us enjoy consuming culture, while also being inspired to roll our sleeves up and have a go – as the exponential rise of YouTube and now TikTok has proved beyond any doubt.
Fast forward twenty years and I had just returned from working with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. My role had been part of the international effort to support economic redevelopment following the war there.
Back in the UK, thanks to my experience, I was invited to become part of the Government’s ‘Stabilisation Unit’. They put together a list of ‘experts’ (a description that was tenuous at best in my case) who could be deployed at short notice to support the UK’s international aid efforts. In order to be sent ‘on mission’, you had to first complete a very comprehensive form of security training, commonly known as ‘Hostile Environment Awareness Training’ or HEAT: originally designed for journalists going out to war zones.
The course I was part of was a week-long exercise that involved highly immersive simulations: featuring everything from landmine explosions to hostage and kidnapping situations. It all took place at an army base and was very, very thorough.
However, what struck me about the whole process was just how expensive it must be – and how difficult it would be to give large numbers of people access to the same experience. One of the common challenges in the development sector as a whole is that so-called ‘international’ staff often get access to much better and more complete training than those employed in-country.
It was this that got me thinking.
Since my return to the UK, despite retaining a connection with the international development world, my main focus had been media production, specifically, documentaries: an art form that was undergoing its own democratisation of creativity. Video content, thanks to the rise of digital and the likes of Final Cut Pro, had become much easier to produce.
In documentaries, at least the projects we focussed on, the emphasis is very much on realism and telling authentic stories. I wondered: could you combine something authentic and realistic with a game-like (FMV) simulation to provide learners with the type of experience I’d had on my HEAT Course?
That, in essence, was the inception of Near-Life™. A small group of us, who still work together today, set to work to prove it was possible.
You could hardly call it an overnight success.
It took us around five years of pitching the idea to various agencies and funders until we finally secured the support of the UK’s Department for International Development and the United States Aid Department. We received investment to produce a project on ‘Field Security Management’ with UK-based Humanitarian NGO RedR.
Filmed entirely in Kenya, the project, called ‘Mission Ready’, was launched in 2015 – and we received resoundingly positive feedback from learners. We were even invited to present Mission Ready at the UN World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul to showcase the innovation.
Not only did learners prefer the approach, it also improved outcomes. This is something that all the research shows – interactions and game-like experiences enhance knowledge retention.
And, importantly for us, the course, translated to French, Spanish and Arabic, was picked up around the world – making this type of immersive learning accessible to a much wider range of people than would otherwise have been possible. Even now, some five years later, Mission Ready has hundreds of users in over 30+ countries.
We pushed on from Mission Ready by teaming up with the Norwegian Refugee Council to produce an award-winning project called ‘Frontline Humanitarian Toolbox’. Filmed in Jordan, with an Arabic-speaking cast and based on real-life experiences, the interactive video course was designed to give locally employed colleagues in Syria access to high-quality experiential training that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
We’re very proud of this work in the international humanitarian space – and it’s an area we continue to be involved with, most recently collaborating with the World Health Organisation on a project for Emergency Medical Teams.
However, we always knew the approach was applicable in multiple areas. We spread our wings to produce further pilots, partnering on learning design and content, with the likes of UK retailer ASDA and the National Health Service, as well as First Aid charity St John Ambulance and international property company Jones Lang Lasalle.
It was these very disparate use cases – and the positive reaction they had – that inspired us to take the step we’d always wanted. We raised investment to develop an authoring tool that would empower others, in the true DIY spirit, to design and publish their own immersive projects.
We launched Near-Life™ CREATOR in Spring 2020 and have since onboarded users from across the world. Thanks to investment from Innovate UK we were also able to add VR authoring at the beginning of 2021 – giving even greater flexibility to content creators. And its use of Web VR technology means the typical barriers to scaling VR projects simply aren’t there.
Since we started on this journey some ten-plus years ago, we’ve seen interest continue to grow in the interactive and immersive learning space. The term ‘branching scenarios’ is now common parlance in learning. More and more people are aware of the value this approach can bring.
And the likes of Netflix’s Bandersnatch and Bear Gryll’s ‘You vs Wild’ have been more recent landmarks in the FVM crossover world. Bringing interactivity to a previously linear space.
The creative possibilities really are huge.
That’s where we come in. We want to unlock those possibilities for a new generation of content creation. The focus for us has always been around empowerment: from empowering learners with more immersive experiences, through to empowering creators to take their own projects to the next level.
Certainly interest in remote learning – and all things remote – has accelerated through the recent pandemic. And we continue to see learning as a core part of what we do. We’ve also seen, thanks to the likes of Netflix, Steam and others, an increased interest in interactive and immersive storytelling. We now have users creating everything from public information campaigns through to interactive children’s theatre.
Our goal is simple: to make interactive content creation accessible.
We’re proud of developing the first interactive Video and VR authoring tool designed for everyone. And we continue to work on enhancing the game design capabilities that are at the core of what we do. We want interactive content to be easy, removing the technical barriers that may previously have held people back.
The future looks bright for this immersive, creative world. And as more people choose their own adventure, I’m convinced the best is yet to come.
If you want to learn more about creating your own interactive video, VR and gamified content, click here to book a demo of our authoring tool.
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