A startup whose executives have a combined heritage in CGI, Hollywood, and video games is seeking to disrupt the ‘brand integration’ industry with the ability to insert branded 3D objects into television content digitally, even retroactively.
Los Angeles-based Roy Taylor left his role at chipmaker AMD to cofound Ryff along with former Technicolor VP Mark Turner, bootstrapping $500,000 from friends and family along the way. The CTO Evan Smith also used to work at Dreamworks, while Spencer Stephens, who is ‘chief science advisor’, was previously CTO at Sony Pictures.
The proposition is simple: what if brands could use the technology developed in-house at Ryff to insert their products more easily into films and TV series?
Taylor stresses to Techworld by phone this week that “nobody likes TV adverts”, but nevertheless, television needs to be funded somehow. There has been an explosion in television content being developed, he says, but at the same time the TV commercial model has been in “freefall”.
“Last year, there were a record number of new non-scripted TV shows in America: 487,” says Taylor. “So even if you make a brilliant TV advert, where do you put it? It’s really hard to know where to put your TV advert, because there’s so much content… once a 30-second advert on prime-time TV might have cost you a million quid, now you might be able to get it for a fraction of that price.”
Even casual TV and film viewers will most likely be aware of the boom in product placement. It’s nothing new: Wayne’s World deftly addressed the phenomena back in the 90’s with an iconic scene where the titular Wayne declares he will not ‘bow to any sponsor’.
More recent examples have been subject to mockery on social media. For instance, corporate logos were generously appliquéd throughout the 2015 addition to the Jurassic Park franchise took place in a universe where all of the cars were Mercedes, and the ill-fated Samsung Gear smartwatch helped our heroes tackle the rampaging dinosaur threat. The Dyson Airblade, meanwhile, boldly made it to where no hand dryer had before in the 2009 Star Trek film.
A Samsung smartwatch in Jurassic World
But the method for dispersing these corporate seeds throughout the cultural sphere is, according to Taylor, stuck in the analogue age.
“Right now what happens is there are agents, and what they do is run around town with a warehouse full of products and drop them off on set,” he says. “If the director pans a camera left or right by a couple of inches then the product may not be in shot. If you’re a big, powerful brand you might be able to call the shots and ask the director to re-film it, but if you’re a smaller brand you don’t have that kind of power.
“It seemed to us just silly that people were actually dropping off cans of soda, and TVs, and Xboxes and all the rest of it – it seemed a silly way for us to get products onto the set and into the shot.”
He adds that the post production industry can also provide digital products, however they are “very expensive and very slow” because they’re used to creating high-quality special effects for big-budget movies.
“My background is from the video game industry and from graphics processing,” Taylor says. “I was aware that over the last two years the big cloud rendering services have started putting GPU clusters in, so you can start to render in the cloud. Now those capabilities are still early and they can’t render entire frames, and they certainly couldn’t render them quickly, yet. But if you didn’t need to do the entire frame – if you could render just part of the frame – actually they can do that right now.”
Taylor turns again to games to illustrate his point – at any given second, he says, millions of gamers are playing the first person shooter, Fortnite. And every one of them necessarily has their own unique perspective: “No single player sees exactly what the other does – by definition they cannot. We thought: in that case why can’t every single TV viewer have their unique perspective? And see product placement that’s relevant and useful to them.”
The technology that the small team of 15 developed together can therefore be deployed ‘over the top’ – so think internet-based services – or over the air, and even live in theatres, provided they have the right projector and a connection to the internet.
Targeted advertising is not exactly popular in the public discourse. The Cambridge Analytica scandal suggested its immense power for fomenting political unrest – and yet regular users of social media will say that despite the vast data profiles built up around individuals, the advertising often misses the mark.
Product placement, too, can be a controversial topic. It was lifted from terrestrial British television shows in 2011, provided a logo to signal the product placement was included, communications regulator Ofcom said at the time – although it continued to be forbidden on the licence-payer funded BBC.
But should we anticipate retroactive product placement in much-loved cultural touchstones? Is it only a matter of time before we get Smith and Wesson Presents: Once Upon A Time In The West™ – or perhaps Casablanca: fly United? Will such a technology make doctoring our beloved films and television as easy as pressing a button?
Ryff, Taylor says, can easily retroactively place (or remove) digital objects from existing content. That technology is “proven”, he says.
Throw targeted advertising into the mix and it all sounds somewhat controversial. However, he says it’s not up to the company how it is used – that lies with the content creators. Taylor also outlines some scenarios where retroactively altering the brand placement could be beneficial for big companies, noting that a certain smartphone manufacturer might be tempted to remove models of its exploding devices that it had contracted into in-film appearances.
“I’ll give you an example – Daniel Craig in James Bond, all of his James Bond movies are still really popular,” he says. “But in one of the first ones there’s a Sony Vaio notebook. They don’t even sell them anymore! But they’re still in the film.
“The other thing that can happen is you may feel I want to have Virgin Cola for my UK market, but I don’t sell Virgin Cola in France. Wouldn’t it be great if I could put another brand in there for France? And another for Turkey and another for Israel and so on.
“With our model you could re-sell the placement depending on the market and your brand.”
Or, if an advert or product placement was inappropriate for whatever reason, Ryff would allow the content producer to expunge it from the content itself.
The brand integration model is, he repeats, already in existence – but Ryff intends to make it digital. “[It’s] already a $23 billion dollar business, about $10 billion in the US and about $13 billion in the rest of the world. So we’re not inventing it, we’re not the first guys to say this is a trend, so let me be really emphatic about that… what we’re doing is saying you shouldn’t have men in white trucks driving around Ealing or Hollywood dropping off empty cans of soda and computers. That’s ridiculous.
“What we’re seeking to do is make the digitalisation of an existing industry come about,” he says, having also noted the irony of a Bill Gates venture — Branded Integration Network — as an analogue product placement business, despite Gates making his billions in digital.
A new model
The company isn’t shy about discussing the future of content. Netflix was early in pivoting to streaming services and has established a dominant position.
Amazon quickly responded with its Prime Video service and now there will be new contenders with Apple and Disney set to launch their own over-the-top platforms soon. This new competition could fundamentally alter the way we pay for access to intellectual property – with big businesses vying over, once again, the broadcasting rights that many consumers would have hoped would become largely a relic of the past.
“What you have right now is you either have to pay a monthly subscription to watch your content, or a product with adverts,” says Taylor. “Clearly for a while at least we have chosen to start paying. That’s why Netflix is so successful. But we probably aren’t going to want to pay for seven, eight, nine, ten channels.
“One of the things I can see happening is that somebody may come along and say: you have the choice, you can pay your £10 a month and get my streaming service, or you can accept advert breaks. Or, you can actually have it completely free, but you accept that there’s going to be dynamic product placements in the content.
“I believe that if you were given the choice to have premium content for free in return for knowing that brands are going to turn up in the content, which they do in real life anyway… Brands are all around us all the time anyway, all we’re going to do is make sure you don’t see ones which irritate you.”
The company has just completed a Series A round of funding and will be announcing the results in a few weeks. It has also signed a partnership with Endemol, and Taylor says that the technology will be live in films and TV shows by autumn this year, and is targeting the USA and Britain for its early growth.
What Taylor and Ryff seem intent on saying is that they aren’t re-inventing the wheel – and that this is no more a bastardisation of content than what we have grown accustomed to anywhere, whether you think that is for better or for worse. It seems like an easy sell for producers and corporations keen to get their branding in front of viewers in a more dynamic sense. But from a viewer’s perspective, is it a good idea in the first place? Whether audiences will accept this kind of digital manipulation – or whether they will even have that choice – time will tell.