Darkroom pushes video technology to great heights

It might seem strange for a company at the cutting edge of content creation for advanced video technology to abandon a commercial and cultural centre like London in favour of Warkworth, but Bruce Ferguson and wife Emma Wolf have few regrets.  

Bruce, the creative director, and Emma, the creative producer, at Darkroom, saw an opportunity to return home, purchase a little land, acquire a few sheep and escape the rat race.

At the same time, they established their business on the upper floor of the old BNZ building on Neville Street.

Bruce says having a solid reputation among international clients in the United Kingdom means they can continue to serve those clients equally well from New Zealand.

“Having a relationship is more important than where you are based,” he says.

Darkroom specialises in creating Virtual Reality (VR) video and Augmented Reality (AR) video. VR normally requires a user to wear a headset and sees them completely escape the real world for a virtual one.

AR, on the other hand, involves the overlaying of graphic images over real objects.

A typical example would see video images projected on to a stage, or in to the dome, or the side of a building during a big public event.

The building’s architectural features then become a canvas on which the video is played out. They might be highlighted, modified, brought to life or eliminated, depending on the effect the video is trying to create.    

Traditional video has been contained within the “box” of a conventional television or movie screen.

“We work outside the box. How the video gets presented is as important as the actual content of the video,” Bruce says.

The range of effects is unlimited, startling and stunning.  Watch a Darkroom show reel and a building’s windows might suddenly become illuminated and filled with musicians and dancers; it might be brightly lit up with multicoloured lights like a fairground attraction, or suddenly disintegrate and be transformed into something dark and sinister.

Darkroom is the market leader for AR in New Zealand. It’s an area that Bruce is especially drawn to because it allows viewers to share an experience as a group, rather than having an individual put on a headset and disappear into their own world.

Major landmarks that have benefited from the Darkroom treatment include Marble Arch and the Imagination building in London, Skibo Castle in Scotland, the magnificent Madrid Town Hall (Palacio de Cibeles) and the Kursalon music hall in Vienna.

Beyond entertainment, the technology has practical applications too. Darkroom has done a lot of work with Les Mills’ gym clubs. Those riding exercycles are presented with a cycle path projected on to a screen in front of them. They might start by negotiating conventional terrain, then suddenly find themselves taken through jungles, up volcanoes or even into space or under water.        

Bruce says that while finding staff locally with animation experience has its challenges, Warkworth is far from being a backwater in this regard.      

The Huhu animation studios are a mere stone’s throw away in Snells Beach and many of Darkroom’s staff trained at Lifeway College, also originally in Snells Beach.

Local AR and VR enthusiasts meet regularly at the Tahi Bar to “share ideas, fool around and have some fun.”

Bruce says prospects for the technology are bright, with all kinds of medical and engineering applications in the future.

Sensors on a patient’s body might be used to present a 3D image of a diseased organ which can be viewed from all angles and manipulated in “real space” by a surgeon, rather than be confined to a video screen.

“It’s important to recognise that this technology is not just a fad or a toy or a gimmick. It can be really useful,” Bruce says.

The Darkroom team from left, Bran Freeman, Bruce Ferguson, Emma Wolf, Matt Crisp, Adriana Arriaga, Elmo Dean.