Alumni Profile: Robert Kori Golding, Albedo Informatics Inc.

By Carol Neshevich ● May 03, 2018 15:45

A man wearing a dark baseball cap and grey hoodie. A young child wearing a scarf sits a top the man's shoulders, smiling. With a Master’s in Materials Chemistry, Robert Kori Golding was on track to be a scientist. Instead, he dove into interactive digital media at the Canadian Film Centre Media Lab (CFC Media Lab), at the TELUS Interactive Art and Entertainment Program in 2004. Nearly a decade later in 2013, he returned to the CFC with his company, Albedo Informatics Inc. and their toolkit, LARGE (Location-based Augmented Reality Gaming Engine), when they were selected for Cohort 3 of the CFC’s IDEABOOST Accelerator.

This Saturday, May 5, LARGE will power an augmented reality (AR) experience of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, as part of Jane’s Walk, an annual global festival of free walking tours and events inspired by renowned urbanist, Jane Jacobs. Learn more about Golding’s location-based AR work, the value of CFC networks, and why sometimes the best ideas arise when you’re not looking for them.

How did you first get interested in designing games?

I’ve been designing technology-related games for about 12 years. But really, I've been designing games since I was a kid. It’s something in which I was always interested, to see how things will work when you give a game a set of rules and parameters. Everyone probably has a game that was unique to them and their friends from when they were young. Like when you turned the playground gravel into lava that you can’t step on, or what you played in your living room. When you’re young, your imagination runs wild. The rules will develop and form because people want there to be a sense of fairness. The thing people forget as they get older is that everyone is a game designer when they’re young.

Did you make that love of creating games into a career?

In a sense, yes. Though I wouldn’t say my career is game design, even though that’s more or less what I do. For me, it’s more about designing experiences. Experiences can run the gamut from writing stories to making music. My educational background isn’t related to games, either. My undergraduate degree is in economics and then I did a Master’s in materials chemistry. I started a PhD in biomedical engineering, but quit when my mom got diagnosed with terminal cancer. Then I reassessed what I wanted to do and decided to go to the CFC. That was my first foray into interactive digital media.

What have been some of your career highlights?

I haven’t been entirely commercially focused, so I’ve had a lot of opportunities to make experimental technology. I’ve been working on location-based games for about 12 years now, and my focus has always been on using technology to bring people together, to interact with the world, and to reconnect with their surroundings, as opposed to just escapist fantasy.

The first location-based game I designed was called Echelon, for the Blackberry Curve. This game brought people together in public places, so I looked at it as a digital icebreaker, as just a way to connect random people in a physical space, which the device and software facilitated. The project I’m working on now, LARGE, is a direct descendent. They all keep leading to each other.

Echelon was ambitious, but the technology just wasn’t there yet. So it evolved into the next project I worked on, Mytoshi, a location-based virtual pet. In Japanese, toshi means “mirror reflection.” It was supposed to be a virtual pet that reflected people’s real-world behaviour through check-ins. If, for example, you wanted to exercise your pet, then you’d check in to a gym. If you wanted to feed it, then you’d check into restaurants or grocery stores. It would be connected to a pedometer, so you could walk and exercise it. That was the basic idea, that its behaviour and evolution would reflect your real-world behaviour. The problem was that we based it on a system of check-ins, and check-ins were really hot for about a year, but by the time we were ready to go into production, the bottom had fallen out of companies like Foursquare. Still, in the process of building it, we made this robust back-end system, because we envisioned it as the first step in a much larger game. The back end was designed for the rapid iteration and prototyping of location-based games. This happened in 2012, and over the next year, I started getting more into the idea of augmented reality.

That’s how LARGE evolved, which stands for “Location-based Augmented Reality Gaming Engine.” The idea was basically to make an engine, so that people could make location-based augmented reality games. When we first started developing it, people thought the idea was crazy. No one had any idea what a location-based augmented reality game was. People’s eyes would glaze over when I talked to them about it. Yet we were totally validated when Pokémon Go became such a huge success, because that was a location-based augmented reality game. After that, people knew what it meant.

In the last year, things have really escalated. I’m surprised by the rate and pace things at which things in the AR space are developing. It’s really grown exponentially, the number of people working in the space.

You’ve got a high-level science background as well as this creative design side. How does your scientific background shape what you do now?

My scientific background has definitely helped me approach problems and systematically break them down. I was more of an experimental chemist than a theoretical one, so I would devise experiments to prove my hypothesis. I often treat Albedo Informatics Inc. as a research lab, where I’m an academic professor working outside of academia. Much of the work on LARGE could have constituted several master’s and doctoral theses.

A group of people standing in a room. At the center of the photo is a man in a black baseball cap. The man looks like he is speaking while the others in the image are turned towards him.

Tell us about your time at the CFC. What did you take away from it?

I had the benefit of going through two CFC programs in one decade. The first in 2004 was the Habitat program [a component of the TELUS Interactive Art and Entertainment Program]. After intense training, we formed a company with different people in our cohort. I was working on a product called Echo Live, which was basically a software system for the rapid production of DVDs after events, like concerts or conferences. Then more recently, I went through the IDEABOOST Accelerator with LARGE [in 2013]. That was a totally different experience. It was interesting to see how things changed, how startup culture has evolved, and how the programs at the CFC manage to keep evolving with the times.

One of the best parts of the CFC is the network. I’ve met a ton of really great people through the CFC whom I’m still friends with and work with to this day. The network I was introduced to has been very valuable, so I’m also eternally grateful for the support the CFC has provided me and my various projects.

Can you tell us a little more about LARGE’s role in Jane’s Walk?

Jane’s Walk aligns perfectly with our goals for LARGE. We think AR is going to be a massive space, and we want LARGE to have a community-oriented bent. We’re making a white-label version of the app for the Jane’s Walk experience to test it out as a case study. That is, we haven’t officially released the app yet, but will in the next month or so. LARGE allows people to mark up the world using AR, so anyone who’s interested can use the app to make tours or walks like this one. We’ve also been talking to a number of cultural and historical organizations to put a lot of content out there for users.

What are you working on now?

We’re about to launch the LARGE augmented reality messenger, and are currently also in production on a game called SIGIL, a location-based augmented reality role-playing game. Pokémon Go validated the genre, which was great, but I personally didn’t love it. I find a lot of mobile games are not even games; they’re a set of addictive mechanisms designed to get people hooked to spend money. We’re trying to make a game that is easily monetizable, but with more to it than most mobile games. Really, we’re embracing a lot of aspects of AR. We created a set of design pillars governing the production, which may be another place where my scientific background comes in to play. We’ve been working on SIGIL for a couple of years, designing it, and now we’re going into production with support from the Canada Media Fund. It should be ready for beta next spring.

What do you like most about your work? On the flipside, what are the challenges?

I really like what I do very much. The only things I don’t like are the day-to-day admin tasks. Aside from that, I like almost every aspect. It’s always fun when you come up with a new idea, or when you’re in that zone where everything seems to be working. It’s also satisfying when your predictions come to pass. Every day is a new set of challenges. Sometimes it’s easy to get burnt out, because when you’re an entrepreneur you have no set hours. You’re always working, or you're thinking about work. I need to learn how to disconnect more. That’s often when you come up with your best ideas, when you’re not looking for them. You could be out for a walk or bike ride and see something that triggers a chain of thoughts that leads to something very interesting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.