Jennifer Wilson is one of the directors of The Project Factory, a specialist in cross-platform, multi-media strategy and development, with a special interest in creative content and solutions. The Project Factory translates linear narratives and brand messages into interactive and digital messages; online, on mobile, in social media, in virtual worlds and through game play.
Jennifer’s previous roles include head of innovation for ninemsn, investigating new technologies and platforms that consumers are congregating around, and prior to this, was MD of HWW, a content company, one of the first to provide mobile services across all carriers and develop a converged user experience across all platforms.
Jennifer has previous sat on the Executive of the Australian Interactive and Multimedia Industry Association (AIMIA), chaired the Mobile Industry Group, was an industry representative on the board of the Screen Producers of Australia and currently sits on the Innovation and Productivity Council for NSW. She has more than 20 years experience in interactive media and is a highly regarded public speaker and thought leader.
What were you obsessed with at ages 5, 15 and 30?
That’s a hard question. What was I obsessed with at the age of 5? Probably climbing trees and swimming. What was I obsessed with at 15? I was busy being an angry young teenager. And what was I obsessed with at 30? Technology. Computers. That was early days of it though. It was around then I became involved with interactive voice response systems. I was obsessed with the idea that people were going to be able to get information they wanted by interfacing with some sort of interactive technology. Whether it was a screen or telephone, for the first time, users – the public - could actually get answers they wanted instantly. Until then, they couldn’t. Information was locked away, and that was changing. That’s what was fascinating me then. And then I couldn’t get enough of it!
What gear were you playing with at that time?
I was into computer programming at a very early age. I started programming in COBOL and in the early days in C which had just been invented as a language. DOS wasn’t available as an operating system, and Microsoft only just existed as a company in those days. I got really fascinated by all of that sort of stuff – what you could do and what you could build. Around that time were the first telephone systems where you could hit buttons on the phone and it would speak something back to you. People don’t realise that that was the very first form of interactivity that we ever had. The very first time you could interrogate the system and get an answer back was with an interactive voice response system.
I remember going for a job interview. I wasn’t that interested in the job, but they put me in front of a telephone, and gave me a little book and they said, “Punch in the numbers here and see what happens.” I punched in the numbers, and the voice at the other end responded to what I’d asked for. I had never seen that, never ever. No consumer had ever seen that, and I was completely blown away. I rang up the other company that I was thinking of getting a job at, and went, “Forget your job, I want to go and work in this stuff.” I would say that was my first time playing with interactivity. I found the whole idea of consumer driven queries – what we now call search – really fascinating.
Are any of these ideas still present in the work that you do today?
I’d say that I’ve never lost my love and fascination for that. What I’m amazed by now are the different ways in which we can interrogate those devices. In those days it was pressing buttons, then it got to the point where you could type in long words and now we can touch the screen. We pick up our phone and we touch the screen to do things – that’s the way we’re interacting with it. And now we’re getting to the point where we just move our hands and point. I think that the whole way in which we control the flow of information – whether that information’s content, entertainment, news, share prices, weather information – is really starting to change again. I just love the different ways in which we’re able to interact and how we can get that information. And how it is tracked in some subtle ways for us. You carry your phone around in your pocket and it tells you how many steps you’ve done or how far you’ve walked, for example. Or you hop on your pair of scales and they pass your weight to your mobile phone – whether you want it or not. All of this to me is just new forms of interactivity.
What’s been the most personally satisfying moment you’ve ever been able to create for an audience?
One of them was when we released our entertainment app, Sherlock: The Network. I remember when we got a response from somebody who was saying how when they watched that first embedded video and Sherlock showed up on the screen and talked directly to her that she’d had this moment where her breath caught. It was so exciting to hear that. I thought:” We’re at the point now where digital experiences can generate incredibly deep emotions in people”. Some of the responses we had to that app included people saying that they would be waiting as eagerly for new cases to solve in the app as they would be for the next series of Sherlock. I loved that idea – that the characters in the TV series had become a part of these people’s lives. That was extraordinarily satisfying. It was an absolute “yes” moment, when you know that you’ve got it!
Do you feel like the digital tools that we’re able to work with now have become a whole lot more malleable?
I do. I think that the whole intimacy of touch has also changed some of those things too. I think that when interactivity is mediated to a mouse or through a keyboard, then your relationship with information or content is a lot more dry. When you’re touching your device, or when you’re talking and it’s talking back to you the interactivity is a lot more intimate. It comes down partly to the manner in which we’re now able to interact: if you’re touching your phone, and it’s responding to your gestures, that’s quite different from just moving a mouse around the screen. I do think touch adds to intimacy to an experience in a way that hasn’t existed before now.
How do you stay creatively fit?
Read a lot. Imagine. Play. Ask questions. Challenge ideas. Look at what other people are doing. Come up with weird ideas. Shoot the breeze. Play lots of those little games where you ask, “What if we did this? What if we did this?” And be open to every idea that’s coming out, and play a lot with what other people are doing. Whenever I see new technology I might play with it for a couple of days. I think all of us who play around these technologies tend to tire of it quite quickly and move onto the next one. But I’m always going, “What could I do with this? How would this change how I engage with the consumer? How will this change how I make them part of the story? How would this change what they might do in something that I was building for them?” But generally – I read, watch television, think and just play imagination games.
At The Project Factory, do you guys have a set methodology around that kind of creative development, or is it more free-form?
I’d say we haven’t got a set methodology around it. There are elements of free form, but one of the things that we do recognise is that everybody has creative thought and creative ideas. The more that you can share with people what you’re thinking the more people will bounce ideas off of each other. So we do have formal skill sharing sessions where we try and share things that we know and things that we understand. If an idea comes in we go, “Okay let’s see what creative ideas we can think of applying to this.” It’s usual that we will have a broad brainstorm with just about everybody in the company throwing ideas out there and refining them.
I heard a really good talk at a conference in Europe earlier on this year looking at ideators, activators and mediators. The ideators goes “We could do this or we could do this or we could do this.” That’s all their job is, is to come up with the initial ideas. Then there’s a mediator who looks at these ideas and eventually takes a few of the gems and goes, “Well if we did this, we could do this and this with it.” And in between the two of them is an activator. And the activator’s job is to go, “Oh that’s a great idea, what about if we do this.” So the ideator comes up with the ideas, the activator takes those ideas and encourages them to keep coming up with them and the mediator to keep refining the, (and maybe refines them a little bit). Then the mediator looks at them, going, “That one. That one. And if we put the two of them together, we could do this.”
So what you’ve got is an ideator with ideas, then an activator to encourage the ideator to get more ideas out there. Then the mediator who can actually work out how you land the ideas and take them forward. At the conference the speaker made the comment of saying he’s been in meetings where there’s only been ideators. They just sit there throwing up ideas. And nobody’s got any idea of how to take it to market or how to land it. And then other times, you’re in a room with a whole lot of people who can take things to market, but they’ve got no good ideas. I think that within most successful creative companies, those three people exist. Some people encourage everybody with a lot of ideas, and some people land them and some people are the ideas generators. And people change roles too. Sometimes someone has to take the other role.
What technologies do you think will matter to us in 10 years’ time?
Without a doubt, mobile phones. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they start to morph and change. We’ve gone from shrinking them down, and now size-wise, we’re going back up again. I’m wondering whether they’ll start to break apart. I think wearables will stay, but I think they won’t be the bracelets we see advertised, or Google Glass - the obvious ones. I think that they’ll become more intuitive in the way that they sit within us. And that could include things like built in microphones in collars of your shirts so that you can take have phone call using a watch for example.
That said, I haven’t worn a watch for years and I can’t imagine that I’m gonna start wearing one just because it’s something digital. But imagine the idea that we become the walking device ourselves.
I think the internet’s going to be around in a similar way for a long time and the way that we work with computers with a keyboard and mouse is always going to be handy for us, because it’s a great way of capturing ideas. But I think we’ll also see more gesture recognition, augmented reality and things like Holosync are going to become more viable. I think virtual reality’s really got a role to play. But I think because it’s such an isolating experience, it will remain important, but in a very personal arena.
I think what you’re saying around wearables is really interesting too. A friend of mine recently got one of the Motorola 360 smartwatches. She had it on at the pub on the weekend, and everyone was gathered around, staring at it, waiting for it to do something amazing. But it never really managed to do anything very interesting.
I know somebody who wore one for about 6 months and then stopped wearing it. I said, “Why did you stop wearing it?” And he said, “What did I need it for? I carry my phone with me, if I’m going to make a phone call, I need my phone. Why do I need a watch to tell me that I’ve got a phone call coming in? Or a watch to tell me I’ve got an SMS but not tell me all the content of it.” It’s really interesting. I’m not sure how smartwatches will take off, but we’ll see. I think they will though. I’m interested in other kinds of wearables. I think we’ll start to see things like subtle wearables in our shoes that just automatically track how much we’re moving. And it won’t be a case where you specially buy a pair of shoes with a sensor in, they will have all have sensors in them off the shelf.
What’s one piece of technology in your field that has become so embedded that it’s hard to imagine it not being there?
I’d have to say, again, mobile phones. I can remember when, in the very, very early days of mobiles – and this is before the iPhone came out – I can remember talking at a conference to a room of people when the mobile phone had been out in Australia for about 7 years. It had taken something like 4 years for Australian mobile phone usage to exceed 50% of the population. And I said to the people in the room, “How long have you had your mobile phone?” And I gave them a series of options. All of them thought they’d had their mobile phone longer than they had. Because they couldn’t imagine life without it.
I think the same holds true for the social media that we use. I can remember being a very early user on Twitter and Facebook and have people saying, “I just don’t understand what you do with it all, why do you need this stuff?” And then within 2 years, they couldn’t imagine their life without it. I think that people now, forget that there was a time when we didn’t have these things in our lives.
And some of us can remember life before the internet. As a kid I can remember black and white television. Those sorts of things I think are funny. I think with the types of technology that get embedded in our lives, we simply can’t imagine what life is like without them. For many people if took away their mobile phones you isolate them more than you’d do with any other device that you take away from them. Because it’s now become so ubiquitous to what we do.
When have you worked with a technology and you realised that it didn’t quite cut the mustard?
I had a play with Leap Motion. I was so looking forward to the idea that I was going to be able to put it in front of my computer. I think half of us in the office got one. And we all started the day programming our Leap Motions, we all spent half a day working with them, and then we all gave up on them. So there’s a little piece of technology that didn’t live up to its original hype. And I think we’ll see other things like that.
With some technologies we get in a little bit too early while they are still a little clunky. We did a lot of work in Second Life in the very beginning, and it was fantastic work which we really enjoyed. But Second Life isn’t doing anything now, and you kind of think, “Well isn’t that a kind of extension of virtual reality and augmented reality? What’s happened to Second Life?” and it really is ‘now’ technology, but different.
What’s a technological trend you’ve observed that looks like trouble?
Oh, the rise of the selfie!
I think the idea of interfaces in the way that Tinder operates could be trouble. I think that they let us make such instant decisions with no thought about what it is that we’re doing – based on an immediate gut feeling. Some of those things start to diminish our ability to indulge more in decision making, or indulge more in content. For so many of us, the people that we meet are much more interesting once we’ve spent time with them and got to know them rather than basing our decisions just on what they look like.
I think that as a trend that’s an interesting one. I won’t say trouble, but I think now that we’re bringing those interfaces to a whole lot of otherareas, and it’s becoming a very quick and almost meaningless way of making selections which is becomes a way of making decisions.
I think the way in which we can be tracked online could also be trouble. All of the stuff that Snowden brought up with the way the NSA and everybody is tracking us. I think that is kind of trouble. I think that there are going to be things out of that that are going come back to haunt us. Things that we don’t yet know about. The idea that everything we now do online is always been tracked means that there are going to be repercussions in the future that we can’t see yet.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? The things that we can’t yet see.
I think that will be the bigger one. When you look at the fact that Facebook admits that it tracks people who aren’t on Facebook and aren’t necessarily connected to you. It doesn’t do it in a malicious way, it just tracks them. So everybody’s being tracked all the time. And we are surprisingly complacent about it.
When do you say no?
The first answer is not often enough. And I think the second thing is that I used to work in a company where I once said, “If you have a client who is a nightmare during the time that you’re trying to secure them as a client, they’ll be even worse when you get them as a client.” So on the whole, try and say no people that don’t add value to your lives. Or say no if it isn’t something that’s going to be fun. If you think it’s going to be a waste of time, say no. Do something that’s valuable, do something that’s more useful. Do something that’s more productive or a lot more fun.
What’s the most disappointing thing about living in the future - now that we’re here?
It doesn’t live up to its hype. I think sometimes there’s a tendency to think that what you see is what everybody’s seeing. And so you start to have conversations with people based on the reality of your own life which is not quite the reality of theirs. Sometimes it’s displacement.
I had dinner with a very dear friend last night. She remembers things that I said four years ago that she thought were quite prophetic, because she’s starting to see them in her life now. And I thought, "God, did I say that?!” It’s not so much living in the future, it’s when you’re playing with things which are new to so many people, we make the assumption that this is what real life is like. Sometimes the most disappointing thing is that it’s not real life, it’s just this new thing we’re playing with.
This other thing too is that because at that level, so much of the stuff we play with is the beta version of it or the first release version of it, or the thing that they haven’t yet got right. It’s like my hopes with the Leap Motion were so high that it was disappointing that it didn’t live up to it. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to, it just means that when you’re there, you don’t always get it right the first time. Impatience. There we are. The most disappointing thing about living in the future is impatience.