Oscar Nicholson, Power-Up, IRL Digital Festival

We’re on the cusp of a renaissance ...

We may know it as the hub of live performance, a breezy spot for a riverside tipple and the site of major festivals, but the Brisbane Powerhouse hasn’t always been so. Rewind 30 years and it was the site of squatters and underground art events, go back a little further and it supplied electricity to many Brisbane suburbs and the largest tram network in the southern hemisphere. One local wunderkind is taking us back to the building’s heyday as a working power station, in a wonderful collision of history and technology at the IRL Digital Festival this month. Oscar Nicholson’s interactive outdoor installation Power-Up invites locals to ‘play’ with their Powerhouse, activating animated cogs, levers and pulleys via animation, projection and responsive technology. Before Power-Up lights up New Farm from this Friday May 8 to Sunday May 10, The Weekend Edition chatted to its creator about legacies and Lynx Angels.

We can’t wait to check out Power-Up at the IRL Digital Festival! What hints can you give us about this epic outdoor installation?
Power-Up will make you the engine powering Brisbane Powerhouse. As a large projection on the outside of the Powerhouse, you become a part of an old machine, which you control with body movement.

How long did it take you to dream up the concept and then bring those plans to fruition?
The idea for Power-Up has been gestating for a while. I’ve always wanted to create an interactive experience where people are the engine driving a machine, encouraging people to collaborate in movement. Brisbane Powerhouse, with its history as a coal-fired power station, is the perfect location and the IRL Digital Festival is the perfect event to stage Power-Up. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of old technology being represented with new technology.

What other exhibitions or events are you keen to check out at the festival?
I’m really looking forward to Player One/Player Two, a game experience where you play a connected narrative including Space Invaders, Zelda and Mario. Daniel Flood and the team at The Edge have an impressively diverse set of skills – I can’t wait to see what they have come up with!

Your job probably didn’t even exist when you were a kid – what, then, was your childhood dream?
Not exactly, but I did want to be an inventor as a kid. Although the notion of an ‘inventor’ is anachronistic, there are facets of invention in so many roles today. The tools to realise creativity and innovation are increasingly accessible, so we’re on the cusp of a renaissance where anyone can be an inventor and the next disruptive idea could come from anyone.

How did you get into this line of work?
It certainly wasn’t a clear path! I studied biochemistry, but I couldn’t bring myself to endlessly eviscerate rats and found lab life didn’t suit me. I got into sales and marketing soon after and had a life-changing meeting with one of the futurists Steven Spielberg consulted with on Minority Report – a guy called Dale Herigstad, who is a pioneer of gestural interfaces, among other things. In a few short hours, he opened my eyes to human-computer interaction that goes beyond the mouse or keyboard. I started experimenting and soon started booking augmented reality projects. Since then, my agency has always offered core digital marketing services, but my passion has been immersing audiences in digital experiences.

What do you love about your job?
Digital inspires a sense of boundless possibility in me; it’s like that feeling you had as a child trying to imagine the future, dreaming of the ways life might change. As a kid, I imagined technology moving us towards a kind of omnipotence, where we are increasingly empowered to express ourselves. What fascinates me most about the interactive experiences I’ve created is putting the audience in control, making them the star, letting the ego run wild. I fondly remember a dapper elderly gentleman waltzing with a virtual angel. Everyone watching applauded and I realised that it wasn’t about what I had created, but what it had inspired in others to express.

What would you say has been your career highlight so far?
I have a few favourite moments: working with Naomi Watts on Pantene’s cancer charity Beautiful Lengths was amazing. Collaborating with MySpace (remember them!) to showcase M.I.A. when she was just blowing up. I’d say the defining moment was the Lynx Angel Ambush, where we created sexy virtual angels that seduced people – that was when I realised how powerful augmented reality could be as both an interactive and storytelling medium.

What’s been the most challenging project you’ve worked on?
McDonald’s got me to create an augmented reality experience where people could interact with a virtual Ronald McDonald. We had six weeks to deliver and stage the experience. With all of the technical unknowns, R&D and the scale of the experience, there were more sleepless nights than is healthy. It all came off without a hitch, but I’ve since learned to push back on unrealistic deadlines.

You’re managing director of Romeo Digital in West End; what can you tell us about some of the projects you guys have worked on so far?
Having only recently moved back to Brisbane after 15 years, Romeo Digital is just a few months old, but we’ve already won a lot of work. We launched luxury accessories company Plus Equals Studio to market. We’re launching telco service provider Mobimedia into South East Asia. We have a slew of upcoming projects, including a mobile beacon interfacing retail experience and augmented reality installations for other festivals, so we’re very happily busy and getting to play in our digital sandpit.

What would be your dream project?
I’m developing what I call an ‘interactive movie’, where the audience steps into a fully immersive world (without a VR helmet) and can interact with characters and the environment. It will have training and behavioural modification applications, can be purely artistic or used in marketing experiential. Imagine fighting alongside the Justice League and then sharing that video on Instagram – it would be better than a drunken selfie with the Dalai Lama!

What do you hope your legacy will be?
I’ve never really given it any thought … I guess I’d just love my daughter to be proud of me for more than my funny animal voices.

Where do you see this area of technology heading in the future?
In the near future, the screens we see every day are going to be increasingly interactive. Google installed a permanent interactive screen in Times Square that is a preview for the future. Later, we’ll see a convergence of virtual reality and screen technologies, where gestural interfaces and 3D displays create an experience akin to VR without the headset. Eventually, screens themselves will become obsolete – our vision will be augmented with image feeds from our personal computing devices, first via wearable then ocular implant.

Perk up …
 Cheeky Bean Espresso on Montague Street in West End, just near my office.
Relax … at home in Paddington.
Catch up … Archive Beer Boutique in West End.
Be inspired … Brisbane Powerhouse, New Farm.


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