This week, our guest is Thomas Bedenk, VP Extended Reality and based in Berlin. Thomas has been an avid game developer from a very young age and now uses his passion and vision to combine design, psychology, and technology to produce breath-taking digital experiences.
First, we’d like to speak a bit about your professional experience. What has brought you into Extended Reality (XR)?
Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by science fiction and innovation, like the Star Trek holodeck, Niven’s Ringworld or Michael Knight’s smart watch. Also, my passion for video games started early, playing on the Atari 800 XL with my twin brother. I started to explore programming because I wanted to create games myself. At the same time, I liked being creative, drawing and painting, which led to a strong interest in design. So, when I was in school, I started designing and programming websites for local companies. Later, I studied Design as well as Human Factors and founded my own video games company.
Looking back on all this, the driving force has always been to connect the dots between design and technology in order to create something new. So naturally, VR and AR as new mediums immediately caught my attention, and I wanted to be part of creating a vision of the future. My background in psychology and knowing how to produce video games gave me a solid foundation to pursue this.
What has been the biggest innovation since you have been working in the industry?
It has to be the evolution of the internet. In the early days, I still vividly remember the fascination of going online with a squeaky modem in order to connect with people around the world. Then web 2.0 and social media transformed users into creators. And finally, low entry barriers for digital distribution suddenly made it possible for everyone to sell their creations on major platforms in markets that used to have incredibly high entry barriers. Along the way, the availability of game engines and 3D software changed from incredibly expensive specialist software to tools almost everyone can use. Of course, more specifically to XR, the wave of innovation and business interest initiated with Oculus’ success pushed boundaries and made all the difference in creating a real market!
What is the biggest challenge or opportunity you are seeing and what should businesses be doing to prepare for this?
I think many people and businesses underestimated the impact of the web and digital distribution in the past. VR and AR will be the first truly user-centred mediums, and at the same time, there is already a generational shift from TV to games as the leading medium. This is creating a massive change in the users’ expectations, and businesses should already be exploring what this means for their business. You need to know when this medium will evolve from being optional to becoming essential to be able to reach your employees and customers and to drive continued success.
What is the project you are most proud of and why?
I think the most exciting project probably was our Audi e-tron brand introduction XR experience, even though it’s in fierce competition because we did so many cool things over the last 6 years in this area. What made the Audi experience special is that it started small: first, it was just one experience alongside a Berlin Formula E race and VIP event. My team had a lot of creative freedom, worked directly with the head of marketing and was able to integrate wind machines for a breath-taking experience.
We had a successful virtual world premiere of the first e-tron model, and what followed was a series of consecutive projects over multiple years where we continually extended the experience. We literally took it around the world – locations included Montreal, Beirut and Mexico City – and the storytelling was flexible enough to adapt it to different versions of the featured cars and various virtual environments. The cherry on top: we won multiple awards and were invited to speak about the project at many XR conferences.
On the flip side, what is the project or technology that challenged you the most and where you had some setbacks? What did you learn from this?
When you start to explore XR with pilot projects, matching business context is just one aspect to drive it forward. Currently, the biggest challenge is to make it a natural part of an organisation’s toolset. In a lot of businesses, XR projects still need to be backed up by supporting change processes and doing digital groundwork. I think 3D data pipelines are often far from where they could be, which makes the roll-out of successful pilots at scale challenging. Considerations about XR need to happen on a strategic and holistic level and not just in an innovation setting.
We’d like to close our Q&A session with a few personal questions. What topic could you give a 20-minute presentation on without any preparation?
Haha, this is kind of my specialty and flaw at the same time if you ask anyone who knows me. I can give a presentation about pretty much anything I am passionate about. The hard part is stopping me after 20 minutes.
What was something you thought would be easy until you tried it?
Doing an ollie on a skateboard. I had friends who were masters on the skateboard, but I had to revert to inline skates or my bike. On another note, letting my kids explain things to me from their point of view rather than just explaining the world to them.
Who would be your 5 famous dinner party guests – real or fictional?
I really enjoy dinner with my family, but since they aren’t famous, here we go: Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan (I would also take Dirk Nowitzki as he seems a bit more approachable), MacGyver, Captain Picard and Don Norman.
And finally, would you share a favourite quote with us to send our readers off with some inspiration?
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”
Big thanks to Thomas for this fun instalment of our Meet the SME series. Stay tuned for more insights into the work and life of Endavans!