Where Technology Meets Cultural Heritage

September 28, 2020
Christine Behrensdorff

“We have to be in tune with each other, especially in the creative industry.” – Aaron Jay, Emagine.

As a part of the CAST project, we have been supporting creativity driven innovation in tourism and, more recently, have sought to mobilise a response to the impact of COVID-19 in this space via our creative solutions CAST hackathon, which took place in July. We are now conducting a series of interview-based case studies to look more closely at how businesses are coping with the current situation. Our first interview, directed by Creative Business Network, EBN – European Business & Innovation Centre Network & WestBIC is Aaron Jay from Emagine.

In May 2018, Emagine, an Irish Creative Agency, made a breakthrough in museography by introducing the world’s first virtual reality (VR) experience into an authentic Viking house in the Waterford Viking Triangle. As a pioneer in the field, they brought life to Reginald, King of the Vikings. Supported by the national tourism organisation Fáilte Ireland and Waterford City and County Council, Emagine worked hand in hand with museum curators, historical and archaeological experts to deliver an innovative storytelling based on design, technology and cultural heritage.

Emagine were approached by the museum curator, who knew nothing about tech but wanted to hire them to do it. “We said yes, we can do it. But we had no idea whether we could do it or not”, recalls Aaron Jay, Technical Director. He continues: “What appealed to us during that job was that every single person in our company had a seat in the job. So, we did the brand, we did the website, we did the promo videos, we designed the interior of the holding space that they had, we set up the network, we built the computers, we did the storyboards, we created the characters’ 3D-models.” Everything was done in-house, and it took Aaron and his team 6 months to create the experience and they really liked it.

But it was not all that easy, as the VR technology was not out yet and the headsets were not commercially available until late April while they had to deliver in May. So, they were not even sure that the headsets would be ready for the launch of the product. Headsets were available to purchase in a limited way privately – only one per credit card. They got 8 credit cards to purchase the private ones and they just put the product on the market.

In addition, her Excellency Else Berit Eikeland, Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland, became extremely enthusiastic when she did the ribbon-cutting ceremony and visited Emagine studios in Waterford. Then, she introduced them to a Norwegian company, and they teamed up on the project to revive Viking heritage in the Viking House in Stavanger. “Telling the story in a way that is entertaining, that is the magic”, stresses Aaron. On the back of that project, they were contacted to run another project about Roman heritage in Split in Croatia.

Originally, the attraction was meant to bring foreign tourists, mostly from the USA, England and France. But it turned out that 68% of the visitors were actually Irish. The same phenomenon was observed in Stavanger where about 70% of tourists were Norwegian, and in Split where 90% of visitors were Croatian. What they found out was that the locals rediscovered their history and experienced an increased sense of pride of their heritage.

A 360⁰ experience

According to Aaron, the COVID-19 pandemic posed 2 main challenges to his company. First, there have been no visitors and that their business would dry up very quickly under these circumstances, as 80% of their business is tied in with the tourism industry in one way or another. Second, for the management to handle legitimate fears among employees about job security and financial stability. After all, when the health crisis hit the country, Emagine’s business went down by 70%.

However, they received one-to-one support from Enterprise Ireland. First, they joined forces to launch a large VR training programme across the country to adjust technologies for their tourism projects, even though there were no tourists at the time. Like with VR, Emagine, who had started with designing websites and branding, had never done training before. But they took on the challenge and managed it successfully. Secondly, they applied for the COVID-19 sustaining enterprise fund whereby half of the grant is non-repayable and the other half is to be repaid. Enterprise Ireland also made an investment in their company in the form of a preferred shareholding. Thirdly, they started a training programme on market research and marketing to get better equipped to conquer new markets abroad. Finally, together with Enterprise Ireland, they identified that an Operations Manager was missing in their team, and half of his/her salary will be partly supported in the first year. Recruiting a person of that calibre for that price is massive for them, and it will make a major difference on their operations.

Having had that kind of support during the lockdown period allowed them to take 3 to 4 months to take stock of the situation and research how to adjust VR to new uses. The cultural heritage projects in Norway and Croatia had happened before the crisis. Right now, they are exploring possibilities to develop a training scheme for hairdressing in virtual reality as it turned out that a 360 experience is equally important in sectors other than tourism. “It seems like it is completely different from tourism but what we are still doing is telling a story. We have to be evangelical about the technology, because that is our livelihood. We believe in the product because it changes people’s perspectives, it changes people’s minds. But the story is the key, the VR is the bonus.”

Although Emagine has been in business for over 20-years, they consider themselves to be a ’20-year-old startup’, as, they are starting up again, to the point where they went through everything to gain a fresh and lean operational perspective: all the books, invoicing policy, governance structure, processes for delivering work, etc. Against the backdrop of the crisis, the company told the employees that their goal was to keep them employed and to keep the company together. This has been very beneficial to Emagine, as the whole team has come together, and the employees are likely to stay more loyal to their company once things get better.

“I think it’s on that point of becoming more human. Maybe it’s a bit naive but we have to be in tune with each other, especially in the creative industry. To be able to come up with something creative and spark imagination, you need to have a lot of trust in each other and if you don’t have that trust then it won’t be as good. If we, as a company, can operate so the humans in the company feel better about what they are doing, they are going to do a better job. And, ultimately the product will become stronger because more people have better input. That’s what I’ve learnt over the last 6 months.”

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