Alumni Profile: Srinivas Krishna
By Anne Marshall ● June 20, 2018 15:30
Srinivas Krishna grew up asking questions. He knew the artistic life was for him from a young age. As a director of feature films, including the award-winning Masala (1991), as well as a TV producer and installation artist, he has worn many creative hats throughout his widely varied career.
The founder of both the AR video app, Geogram, and mobile AR/VR design and development company, AWE, Krishna has been affiliated with the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) Media Lab’s IDEABOOST Network Connect community since the program’s inception. Read on to learn more about his experience of moving from traditional media to VR/AR, about why it’s important to ask questions without easy answers, and what his visions of a fully interconnected future are.
How did you first transition from film and TV production into virtual and augmented reality?
Sometime around 2005 or 2006, I got bored with what I was doing. With TV and movies, I felt like I knew the end of the journey before I even started a project. Professionally, I have learned to follow the questions that you care about. I wanted to do something where I had no idea what would happen.
My first “break” came with a commission from City of Melbourne in Australia, to create an installation at Federation Square. I was putting large-scale media images on these big sculptural forms, and just seeing what would happen. At the time, no one had really done that kind of thing before. There was no context for this: no gallery, no theatre, nothing on TV. I ended up doing that kind of work all over the world, and I learned a lot about context: how it defines meaning, and how that changes everything.
Then I got a commission to produce 10 films of athletes competing for Bell Media on the Vancouver Olympics. One of the requirements was that we would geo-locate clips of the athletes from the Olympic Village to the competition venues. This sounds relatively easy to do today. But in 2010, two years after the introduction of the smartphone, it was a huge challenge. I didn't really know what the developers were doing, but found that one line in the budget kept growing. So I asked them, “What are you actually doing?”
While I’d been introduced to the smartphone, but I finally saw it and all it’s designed to do. I suddenly realized this was not just a phone. It was also a camera, attached to a computer that was more powerful than the one we sent people to the moon using. It was going to do beautiful display and access the internet, and I thought, “This is going to change everything.”
That experience really turned my head. At that time my son was three years old, and my wife had won an iPad at a raffle. Neither of us knew how to do anything, but we plugged it in. A few days later, I saw my three year-old turn it on. He was walking around with some demo from a game company and I had a vision of what was possible: what if you could walk around and inhabit these 3D worlds? What if you could interact with characters and events and somehow marry them to the real world? It was an epiphany. I got it on the brain and it wouldn't leave.
It took me about a year to find people who said they could build such a thing. They were scientists, with a lab at Ryerson University, so I entered into research collaboration with them and sank a lot of money into it. They raised more through academic grants. Then, in 2012, we built a prototype Fort York, in that building called the Blockhouse – the oldest, longest-standing building in Toronto – and we staged a mixed-reality drama there. We thought the patent that came out of that, which was finally approved barely two months ago, might take off when we retire. But it just took off in a very interesting way!
"The future is not that difficult to predict if we learn to recognize patterns."
- Srinivas Krishna
What was the best moment of that journey? Can you share any of the challenges?
I'd say the most exhilarating moment was in the [Fort York] Blockhouse, when we finally got this thing working. Digital characters were interacting with us in a real space on an iPad in 2013. That was really like a miracle. We put about 200 people through that experience, the first time they were experiencing anything like it, and it was hugely humbling – as well as exhilarating to realize that we were creating a novel, brand new experience in the world.
We gave the first five users iPads and in classic user-testing form, we told them nothing. We dimmed the lights and started the show, a 15-minute experience. For 15 minutes, three of those people didn’t move. Two others managed to look up, and just pointed the camera in one direction and didn't move. We all thought, “What? Don’t they realize they can walk around?” But it was the first time, and nobody knew. So we thought we’d kind of failed somewhere in communicating. We had to give more clues and guidance.
Then we brought in five kids, from ages 12 to 15. They took to it like fish to water. They were just walking around, singing along, with the characters talking back to them. The whole user-testing period was such an education in what it means to be a human dealing with new tools. It's like the first time movies were experienced, that apocryphal story of how people ran out of the theater when they saw a train onscreen. One lesson we learned is that we're really running social experiments when we do this work. We don’t learn about technology as much as we learn what it means to be a human being, how our minds and our bodies function, and how that changes over time. How we get habits and how we can change habits, change ways of seeing, and change ways of interacting. That was the high point.
In terms of challenges, we were early in pitching technologies that now we call the AR Cloud. We had people saying things like, “Cloud-based mapping and tracking of users? I don’t see a need for it, now or ever.” I can’t tell you how many people said that to me. That was extraordinarily disappointing, because we realized we had such a long journey ahead of us. That also spoke to the culture that we must reckon with, as innovators in Canada. The future is not that difficult to predict if we learn to recognize patterns. The part that was the greatest challenge for us was, and continues to be, financing. Developing core technologies and foundational technologies is an ongoing challenge in this climate and in our country. There's a reason why many Canadian companies go abroad.
Are you willing to make some predictions as to where things will go with this type of technology?
I'm not the first to say this, but I think what we're seeing is the dawn of what people call the Physical Web, or the Spatial Web. Until now, the internet has been disassociated from the world as it is, literally or metaphorically. It’s lived in the cloud or it's been placed on screens. What we haven't done is embed the web into the material world. I think that's what we're going to see in the next decade. When we talk about the Internet of Things (IoT), what we're really talking about is physical objects becoming able to communicate with other objects and other machines.
When you tie that in with AR technologies, which are essentially digital “twins” of the world, and when you create digital maps of the world, that enables you to track the movement of objects and people. We can create multiple shared experiences and devices that communicate with each other in ways we can only begin to imagine. Add to that machine learning and the ability to understand those patterns of usage, and then watch what happens over time. I think you’re going to find a material world that is fundamentally different than the one we have today.
At the same time, we need to realize there are real downsides to these changes, too. They touch on our fundamental human right to step out of the community, to disappear into the woods, as it were. We also need to acknowledge that loss, account for it, and ensure that we're not going to be completely oppressed by an entirely communicative material world. And we need to take steps to address issues of access to that interconnected world.
How have Geogram and AWE benefited from your association with IDEABOOST and the CFC?
We’ve been part of the CFC Media Lab’s IDEABOOST community since its beginning. My company, AWE, joined Network Connect early on, and more recently Geogram joined Network Connect.The great thing about it is that it's really a hub. It has fostered a sense of community in in the GTA for people like me, who work at the core of innovation. So there are a few things. For one, it’s an examination based on the evidence. We look at what's around and say, “How is it? Why is it this way?” We start with that question, with a fundamental dissatisfaction about the way things are and a search for truth around it. Then there's always a question of ethics: “How should it be? If it shouldn't be this way, how ought it to be?”
That's the design thinking that's at the core of innovation. When you look at what IDEABOOST does, it gives a home for the tribe that thinks this way. What I found is a community of people who share a basic sense that we can make this better. Therein lies an ethical question. It’s not about only design ethics, an ethics of form. It’s about an ethics of understanding human needs at their most fundamental level. That is, I think, what the philosophy is behind IDEABOOST-ers. That's why it's such a great place for people like me.
"Follow the questions. Seek the answers to the questions that you keep asking."
- Srinivas Krishna
Did you always know that you were going to work in a creative field?
Yes. I had a funny conversation with my father when I was applying to university. I wanted to go to art school and he was an engineer. He had the talk with me and said, “Why don't you go into engineering? You're so good at math and physics,” and I said, “Dad, I want the creative life.” So he said, “Well, I'm doing this and it’s creative,” and I said, “I don’t know about that.” Finally we reached a deal. He said, “Okay, go to art school, but at least go to one that will give you a degree.”
Jump ahead 25 years, after two decades of theatre and movies and television production. I talked to him and said, “Dad, I just started this new company. I'm working with scientists and engineers, and my whole studio is completely changed. You won't believe it, but it's the most creative, challenging thing I've ever done!” So he had a very long laugh.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don't get stuck. Don’t keep doing something because you think that’s your identity or profession. Follow your curiosity. Follow the questions. Seek the answers to the questions that you keep asking. It doesn't matter whether it's in movies or in technology or whatever. Don't let the time guide you. Look at the questions and let them guide you. Don't get stuck.
Photo credit, top and bottom: Michael Tjioe. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.