Want to see what the future of brand experiences holds? In this episode of ‘Behind The Experience’ we speak with Ari Popper about the opportunities innovation and technological advances provide forward thinking brands and discuss the pros and cons of such advancements.
Ari is the Founder and CEO of SciFutures, an award-winning innovation house that uses science fiction prototyping to create preferred futures for Fortune 500 companies.
“It's really cool barring lots of companies that are there, that are helping people know themselves better and helping you get into deeper meditations, helping you have digital assistance that make your life easier and more pleasant, helping you connect with people in a more meaningful way.”
SciFutures and Sense have a partnership that allows Sense to gain access to SciFutures’ global industry trends and unique imagination, along with its expertise in emerging technologies.
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Make sure to check out more from Sense at www.sensegroup.com.au
Read the full interview.
Mark Bennedick: Thanks for tuning in to Behind the Experience. Today we're joined by Ari Popper, founder and CEO of SciFutures. Thanks for joining us, Ari.
Ari Popper: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Mark Bennedick: Excellent. I appreciate you dialing in all the way from LA. So it should be a fun little chat. I'm really interested to hear about some of the work you guys are doing. It's a pretty interesting field that you work in, SciFutures. Can you give us just a quick 101 on what you guys do?
Ari Popper: Sure. Yeah. We mostly help big brands and companies understand where the world's going, a little further out in the kind of five to 10 year time zone. We have over 300 science fiction writers around the world that we use to solicit ideas and their visions after we brief them, and then we use their content to help our clients identify opportunity areas for more disruptive, more far out
innovation. And then once we have those opportunity areas, what we then do is we try and help them prototype and develop solutions and meet with companies that can help them get there.
So yeah, it's really interesting work, as you say, but it's quite difficult, because every time you're doing a project it's brand new and you've got to rethink how to do things. But it definitely keeps us busy.
Mark Bennedick: Excellent. It's a very innovative and a new space that I think many people may not have heard of before. What kind of businesses are working with you in this kind of environment? Are they looking to try and plan for the future? Are they looking for disruptions that are already upon them, or are they applying this to their own workplace, or how are many of the companies using this kind of thought processing to develop?
Ari Popper: Yeah, it's usually companies that are looking for the next big thing. Not the small thing, the kind of incremental innovation, but the next big opportunity that's generally being facilitated by these really cool emerging technologies. So we're trying to give them kind of a forward thinking appreciation of what they could do, what the life of the customer could be like in five years time and what the role of their brands and their products could be in that future.
So it's quite grounded in specifics for what they need to work on today. So which technologies do they need to understand, which competencies that are needed to develop in house? Which potential partners or startups or companies out there that are pushing the boundaries on the edge do they need to get familiar with? And so we do all of that for them, because every large organisation is interested in or should be, is trying to protect their future. We've worked across many, many different industries.
We just happen to find ourselves in a bit of a niche now looking at technologies related to people's emotions and people's moods, which obviously has very important implications for events, and there's kind of a Renaissance and a kind of Cambrian explosion of technologies related to mood and emotion that's happening. People don't realise it's a really fast growing space. And so we're kind of in this niche for three different clients, really helping them understand the space and see what their competitive advantages could be in this space.
Mark Bennedick: Yeah. It is a pretty interesting space and there's a lot going on and technology really is, it's just becoming this amazing enabling tool, which I think people are really trying to navigate how do we best use this at the moment because it's moving so fast and seems somewhat disconnected, because in our lives.
I mean, tell us a bit more about that emotional AI and the emotional side of things that you're talking about there and how that's affecting people, because I think a lot of people probably go around their daily lives and businesses as well, and maybe aren't even thinking about how the emotional side of them is being affected by the technology and even again, how the technology can help them identify their own emotion. I mean, there's a pretty broad playing field to talk about here, but what maybe is the basic understanding for people out there listening, what emotional AI is?
Ari Popper: Yeah, that's a great question, Mark. When we talk about emotion AI and digital mood, what does that mean? So essentially, it's the ability to understand how people are feeling, so what their moods are, what their emotions are, in real time, and then to create interventions that enhance the mood or adjust their mood in real time as well. And so it sounds pretty Sci-Fi like and kind of farfetched, but the reality is it's actually not that difficult to do, given, as you said Mark, the proliferation of these technologies.
So for example, lots of people are wearing Fitbits today, kind of devices that are measuring their heart rate, and we know through some really great scientific research that you can tell how somebody's feeling based on their heart rate and in particular, heart rate variability, so that's the amount of variation between each heartbeat, and that is a really great predictor of someone's mood. So just from a simple Fitbit that's collecting data or a Garmin, there are amazing companies out there that are actually able to take that information and then overlay someone's mood and emotion.
So right away, you're now able to tell how anyone's feeling at any point in time. Now as you start to overlay experiences that can be quantified, whether, let's say you're interacting with different apps on your phone, you're creating a digital record and therefore that data can be overlayed and correlated with your digital mood, your digital emotion as measured by, let's say your Fitbit. So now it's a very interesting character where you're able to understand what people are feeling and then you understand why they're feeling that way or what they're doing that's causing that.
So two very big issues arise when we talk about this. The first thing is, wow, is it really possible? Is it really feasible to do? Yes, I've answered that. So that begs the question, okay, well what are the ethical and responsible ways of using this technology? And that is a very important question that I'm working with the World Economic Forum on some of the human rights issues that this is going to raise, but it can be a tremendously powerful force for good in people's lives, because mostly we were unconscious creatures. We kind of operate out of habit and instinct, and a very few of us are consciously aware of how we're feeling all the time.
But if there was a way to understand experiences or activities or behaviour that make you feel good and conversely experiences or behaviour that make you feel bad, then theoretically you could adjust your lifestyle to do more of the former and less of the latter. So like any new space, there's a lot of upside, but there's also some very scary, I think, ethical issues as well.
Mark Bennedick: Yeah. And how are you seeing that out there at the moment? You're talking about, you're talking with the World Economic Forum, the framework that exists out there at the moment to manage, I guess the human rights of this kind of a space, what stage is that at? Because when I think about how it might apply to the work we do in experience in our agency day to day with marketers, they're very conscious of data privacy and some of the big data breaches that have happened in the past with big companies, tech companies, they're very aware of it these days and they're trying to do the right thing in that space.
So how's that framework developing in a broader sense, which in my mind is a bit of an umbrella above and beyond all of these corporations. At this point, there's sort of a global human rights issue there that needs to be put in place before it can filter down into [the corporate world.].
Ari Popper: Yeah. Some days I'm kind of optimistic about it, but some days I'm pessimistic about it. I think the reality is that the big tech companies have tremendous power. They're in some ways trying to do the right thing, but in other ways they aren't. We've already seen some quite negative consequences, particularly around social media and manipulation and algorithms that have caused serious problems. Depending on the day, some days I feel like this is a disaster and people don't realise that much more needs to be done. And then there are other days where I feel maybe a little bit more hope, a little bit more positive about it.
But the reality is that this is a very important issue and it's still in its infancy, there's lot of work that needs to be done to bring people's attention to the power of this world that we're building, these technologies, and also to give people the understanding of what their rights are and what's the trade off is for them buying into these new platforms. So for example, if we bring it back to mood and emotion, there is, as I was explaining, there's a lot of benefit that you can get from these technologies. I think if consumers or customers who are using the tools are respected or given ownership of their own data and control over how their data is used and treated with only the best intentions for their goodwill, then I think it could really create a very wonderful effect on our society.
However, the flip side of that will happen. We're not naive enough to think that this technology is only going to be used for good. There are going to be instances where they're going to be used to manipulate people, and this is something that we're going to have to bring attention to and we're going to get regulators involved and we're going to have to get governments involved and we're going to have to create a policy around responsible use of these technologies.
But it's a very nascent field, it's just starting and I'm very passionate about it because I'm not a Luddite where I'm sticking my head in the sand saying, "No technology." I genuinely believe that technology can really bring out the best of our species and kind of mitigate the worst of what are as human beings, but that doesn't mean that there's going to be a lot of traps and landmines along the way that we have to raise people's attention to. So like any new field, it's going to be a challenge, but it's an exciting one.
Mark Bennedick: Yeah. I think it's great to have an optimistic viewpoint, really in that, because I think change, innovation, it's never going to stop. It's part of the human psyche. So it's about trying to navigate it in the best way possible. It makes me think back to the past too, if you think about technological innovation in the past, things like the radio, then the telephone and then the Internet and computers, everyone's had to navigate these things and come up with regulation and work out how to use them in positive ways, and the negative ways, as you're saying, are still going to come through in some instances.
I guess the difference perhaps now is maybe the pace of change and the power of computing, which has become so huge, and-
Ari Popper: Yeah, that's the issue is just how fast it's happening and how much bigger the effects are, because there's so much power in the big tech companies and owning that data is so powerful. There are barriers to entry, right? So it's not evenly distributed and people can catch up, once you have all that data and you're mining it, there's a virtuous circle for that company and they just get more powerful.
So you're right. But there is analogies like to the past, with new technologies that are invented, and they come into society, we see the impact and we regulate. But I think with these particular ones we have to really be on our toes because of the speed and the power of them. But I was just at a conference a few weeks ago called Trans-human, transformational technology conference, that was it, and this is a conference dedicated to using technology in a way that uplifts our species and benefits society. And it's really cool barring lots of companies that are there, that are helping people know themselves better and helping you get into deeper meditations, helping you have digital assistance that make your life easier and more pleasant, helping you connect with people in a more meaningful way.
I think that is what's exciting about Sense and what Sense does, it's events, it's bringing people together and these collective shared experiences that we truly have profound transformational opportunities when we connect with other people and when we socialise and when we energise each other. I think there's great promise for these technologies to maximise the likelihood of those kind of beautiful human connection moments that happen, because the last thing we want is people, which has sadly happened to some extent, is people spending a lot more time alone and away from other people and glued to their digital device or in their own world without socialising, connecting and making these real human connections.
So I think technology can actually ironically both hurt in that way, but also help by enhancing social experiences, and I'll give you an example. Let's say we're in an event and people have opted in obviously and their consent to have the emotion and their moods measured anonymously and on aggregate. But imagine if you can have a control panel where you know when people are feeling good, when groups of people connecting and feeling good and based
upon that information, that data, you know what obviously provoked or created that feeling, and then use that to either create more of that dynamically or for next time. And I think that kind of tech is available, could probably be used today, and I think that could be incredibly powerful too.
Mark Bennedick: It's an absolute game changer for our kind of industry, because I think what we do, as you say, is we get people together. And something as a company, we always say, our line I guess is we mine the frontiers of creativity and technology to create experiences that enrich people's lives. So for us, we're trying to get people together and create those meaningful conversations, but we want it to be an enriching experience. We're trying to get brands to talk to people in a way that actually provides them with some benefit. So I think people are a lot more aware of marketing, aware of brands these days, and they're looking for something to justify that moment in their lives where they should actually listen to that brand.
Why should I listen to you? You're one of the 10 billion bits of information banging against my head every day. What's going to make me take notice? And what you're saying there with the ability to actually bring that into the experience space or into an event, do you have a good example perhaps that people might be interested to hear about, about a way that that can be done today rather than the discussion we've had is about things that can happen in the future, but marketers, I think out there are pretty interested to know, what can I do today that makes this stuff valuable?
Ari Popper: Well, let me give you an example, not in events but in physical locations where I think it's really exciting.
Mark Bennedick: Sure.
Ari Popper: Obviously there are analogies here for what you do, but for what Sense does in the event space, but there are a lot of people in retirement homes that are isolated and lonely, and it may be that those emotions are known by the carers, it might be that it's not known. But in these controlled environments, there are technologies that you can deploy to measure people's emotions and feelings in real time. And so you can foresee instances where there might be somebody, let's call them the kind of emotion guardian or the kind of emotional health guardian of people who are in these retirement homes.
By using sensors, computer vision, and algorithms, the companies can do this incredibly accurately, you might be able to know when somebody is lonely or feeling isolated or sad. Some people when they're sad, they might withdraw, they might not communicate and people might not notice. But this is something that can be done today. I mean, it's done more in the physical health, but physical health and emotional health is related, anyway. And this is something that I've been trying to spread and share with some of the retirement home communities that we've spoken to is to try and implement and prototype this type of tech, because it does exist, it works.
Ari Popper: But that same analogy I think applies to events, right? You have a controlled location, physical location and you can do the same thing obviously for a different purpose, and I really like this. So that's today and then going forward, you could envision an AI, so it's basically, let's call it an emotion bot or emotion health bot, and this boss could be in real time and continuously monitoring and determining let's say, level of happiness that people are feeling or level of engagement that people are feeling, and then [program] that bot or that algorithm to either self curate new experiences or to curate alerts or interventions or notifications for the user, but also for somebody like maybe your company who can intervene as well. So this isn't farfetched, this is not 20 years out, this is four, five years out.
Mark Bennedick: You can see the health side of it is a huge one in my mind. The monitoring of people's physical condition, but a mental condition which, there is a brain-body connection, which has been proven scientifically to have effects on people's health. Just the placebo effect, one of the most commonly known things in clinical trials, people actually have a reaction to thinking their body should be doing something, which is quite amazing.
Ari Popper: That's right. It's incredible. And I'll give you some examples of some other technologies that can do that. There's a great company in Israel called Beyond Verbal, and they are able to determine someone's emotion and moods based upon their voice, but they're not doing like a Symantec text analysis, so literally taking out the words and analysing the words. They're looking at the tone that people are using and the way they're talking, the way they're speaking. So the physical act of speaking rather than the words themselves, and they've got incredibly high correlations with determining people's moods and emotions.
Ari Popper: So in events you could imagine little microphones implanted throughout events, picking up conversations and you could do a heat map of mood and emotion and see how people are feeling just using this [tech], but I think there's ways to deal with that in a responsible way.
Mark Bennedick: Yeah, that's interesting. That's another layer that we've never been able to venture into before. It's been a very analog way of measuring what's in a room. Seeing people's faces, qualitative kind of research or seeing how many items of a certain product we've given out or how many people logged in to give you their email to receive something. You're reading the room as we always do as professionals, reading the room and trying to get a feel for what's going on, but this is something measurable, which I think marketers are massive on measurement, obviously they need to be able to justify their spending and what they're doing. And there's always this long held battle between brand marketing and short term marketing.
The brand marketing obviously isn't as measurable, but I think emotion and the way in which people are reacting to your brand does have flow down effects, which eventually gets to the bottom line for companies. So being able to show some measurability in that first phase is a pretty exciting idea, not just for us in our business and you, but it's also to marketers who can justify the spend to a certain extent in that area.
Ari Popper: A hundred percent. Exactly. You might not see a short term sales effect, but you've increased somebody's engagement and overall effect related to your brand, due to a sponsorship or any event, and that pays dividends over time.
Mark Bennedick: Yeah. Yeah. And look, it's worth mentioning at this point, Ari, SciFutures and Sense have formed a partnership in Asia Pacific to help clients deliver on these kinds of ideas. Some of the work that you're doing helping brands envisage their future, there's certain instances where these brands need to then bring that to life. So is there any interesting examples of work that you've done where companies have perhaps needed to bring that future to life, be it for their stakeholders or their staff or whoever it might have been to literally experience that, have a physical incarnation of that thought processes that you go through with SciFutures with them?
Ari Popper: Yeah, definitely. A lot of the work that we do is for internal selling, like very expensive internal sales pitches. Not very expensive, but they can be.
Mark Bennedick: Highly thought through.
Ari Popper: What's that?
Mark Bennedick: I was going to say highly thought through.
Ari Popper: Yeah, but relatively expensive meaning a PowerPoint presentation as opposed to creating a physical experience. Our philosophy is that the degree to which you must [immerse] people into the future is the degree to which their behaviour will change and they'll be able to act on that potential future. And the best way of pulling people into the future is through storytelling. You can do it with video and you can do it with great stories, but there's nothing like literally building a room in the future or a vineyard of the future and getting people to act and behave as if they're a character living in the future.
And now it becomes very personal. It becomes very emotional, very tangible. And we've done this for a number of brands, particularly [internally], one of them was Visa. Working with a great company like yours we create a physical space that is an articulation of their strategy or their future strategy where these technologies are not niche, they become mainstream and people are using them every day. Just like if you like Sci-Fi, you sit in a great Sci-Fi movie, it just becomes normal. And that's a really powerful, transformative device. It's something we love doing and there are some forward thinking clients that do invest the money to do that and it pays off in spades. I wish there were more of them, but we're trying to find them.
Mark Bennedick: You know what, the communities that are doing and are thinking about it, they're the ones that you want to work with because they're the ones that are open to the process. I'd imagine if you're having to put too much effort into trying to convince companies that this is something they should be taking seriously, then they're probably not the kind of company that is going to end up transforming and eventually they probably will end up out of business.
Ari Popper: Yeah, exactly. I think so. Or they'll have to buy a startup at a premium or another company at a premium, or go out of business. But it's exciting. Like I said at the beginning of our podcast, it's definitely interesting work. It's difficult work, but it's a lot of fun and when we get it right, it's so transformative. It really is exciting to see these big companies shift.
We're super excited to be aligned with you guys and the amazing work that you do for your clients, and we'd love to find projects to collaborate on with clients who want to explore this area.
Mark Bennedick: Excellent. Well, Ari, thanks so much for dialling in today. I know you've got a long day ahead of you there in LA. Hopefully it's a good one and thanks for joining us on Behind the Experience. And for all of you tuning in, make sure you check out SciFutures, they're at scifutures.com. We'll attach the links to our websites and the social media in the show notes.
Look, great having a chat, Ari, and really appreciate the time and I hope to have you on again at some stage.
Ari Popper: Oh, for sure. I really appreciate it too, Mark. Thanks so much for having me, man. I really enjoyed it.