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Next Level Life

In August 2019, twenty people danced inside a white canvas tent in the middle of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Microsoft HoloLens strapped to each of their heads. They’d come here today for Outside Lands, a 200,000 person festival in the park, but they’d prioritized this augmented experience over sets by The Lumineers and RL Grime. Inside, they moved from foot to foot, their arms outstretched, each lost in a shared magical world full of neon flowers and shimmering green and purple vines. A girl with two-toned blue hair waved her arm and the air responded to the movement of her palm, rippling, then releasing a stream of sparks into the air. Around her, dancers lifted their faces to the light.

Credit: Enklu

At the entrance, Ray Kallmeyer, the CEO of Enklu, an augmented reality content creation startup, enticed passersby with his megaphone. “Come and see for yourself! 100% organic, locally sourced holograms,” he called, gesturing to the LCD screen pinned to the tent that displayed a real-time mixed reality view of the dancers captivated by their magical Narnias. The line around the tent grew. “We had to push people out of the tent, they were having so much fun dancing,” he recalled — he wanted everyone to have a chance to immerse themselves in AR.

Five years ago an event like this wouldn’t have been possible. The idea of merging augmented reality with the real world with that level of precision and execution only existed in dreams. In 2020, we’re at the cusp of this art-form, as advances in technology have finessed the tools and lowered the price points to a level where creatives are using it to explore new forms of artistic expression.

This combination of art and augmented reality is more than a novel way to interact with objects, it’s about turning the physical world itself — all of it — into a canvas for expression. No walls or galleries can contain AR — it’s a distribution method that connects artists directly to their consumers. To be sure, technologists and creative communities are still working out the best ways to merge their mediums, and for every Enklu, there’s a bunch of people who over-promise and under-deliver. Even so, the potential and the scale of AR as an art-form is breathtaking — as is its accessibility to artists of all levels. Digital artwork has historically been trapped in legacy ecosystems such as Pixar or Disney, with the viewer solidly defined as a consumer. The beauty of AR is that it turns people from passive admirers to participatory parts of the experience, adding a new layer of meaning and magic to the visuals. Without user input, AR is still beautiful, but when complicity paired with its audience — such as the girl who made the sky ripple and sparkle with a touch — it’s transformative.

“The desire to show something that’s cool, beautiful, or interesting, is one I tap into for every AR experience,” said Kallmeyer. That’s echoed by his team; Enklu’s a collective of game designers, artists, and producers, who share the same overarching goal to transform physical spaces by merging the virtual and physical world together. “We created a social way to experience augmented reality, that incorporates beauty and connection among those experiencing it,” he said.

AR goes mainstream

Kallmeyer founded Enklu in 2016, the same year that Pokemon Go brought AR to worldwide attention. Every TV station and newspaper covered its meteoric rise, and marveled at its popularity — they reported on its obsessive fans, its 500 million downloads, and even the stabbing victims that refused to stop catching Squirtles when they needed medical help.

Kallmeyer was unsurprised by AR’s overnight popularity, or that it took a mobile game to propel it into mainstream conversation. Games are how people connect to each other and the world, he explained; the convergence and the ensuing cultural phenomenon was only to be expected.

Of course, Kallmeyer’s biased — he willingly admits this — as he’s been obsessed with games his whole life. He grew up in San Diego, California, and in elementary school, he was the kid everyone went to at recess as he planned epic quests for everyone. One day, they’d be searching for treasure, another day they’d be vanquishing dragons. “Today we’d call that live-action roleplay,” he said.

Where it all began

When he was eleven-years-old, his Mom brought home a computer, and he refocused his energy. He started by building simple flash games for his friends, and in high school, he built on those skills with classes in visual basics and user interface design. He loved playing, but it was the storytelling that grabbed him. In college, he studied computer science, but it was his game design classes that engrossed him. In one, his professor tasked him to build a working game in three months. The premise was that all games had to have one of four things; robots, ninjas, zombies, and aliens. Kallmeyer used all four for his
game, Cyborg Cowboy. “It was about a cyborg helping America fight off an invasion from Canada.” It was lighthearted and a little ridiculous, but the perfect portfolio piece when he applied to work at BottleRocket Entertainment, a game development company run by a former Sony executive. Here he dived into the concept of using animation in cinematic storytelling, and how game design enhanced that. Roles in engineering at Trion Worlds, Inc. and FireForge followed.

The gaming world was undergoing a huge transformation. The focus had always been on Triple A titles, but the new buzz was about mobile gaming. Clash of Clans, a free mobile app, released on iOS in 2012 and Android in 2013, was outselling blockbuster titles. “It was bizarre to see — they seemed like subpar products,” he said. But he soon came around; their platform and free to play model made them instantly accessible to millions of people, and revolutionized the idea of portable gaming.

Everything was changing so fast, and Kallmeyer wanted to get in on the action. In May 2015, he moved to San Francisco for a developer role at NCSoft, the company that makes Guild Wars and Aion. There was some sticker shock involved in the move. He’d lived in a huge apartment with a pool in Los Angeles, and now he was paying the same rent to live in a box-like studio.

Even so, it was an exciting place to be. The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was in development, and communities of makers were working on all sorts of intriguing ways to blend the virtual with the real. In June 2016, three months after the first-gen Oculus Rift was shipped, he got an email from a college friend that changed everything. I have early access to the HoloLens — would you like to try it? Sure, Kallmeyer replied. He wasn’t that excited about AR — he thought virtual reality had more potential for creative expression — but he liked playing with new products. It arrived a few days later, wrapped in brown paper and tissue. It took some adjusting before it fitted comfortably on his head. But once it powered up, it blew his mind. “I could see and feel how close we were to conveying our imagination at such a high level of fidelity,” he said. It was momentous — the HoloLens was his access to the next evolution of information. He gave his two weeks notice the following day.

AR and art

Credit: Zara Stone

The first wave of augmented reality art took the form of protest, through apps that displayed a different message than the norm — skeletons instead of celebration at the Mexico Border Wall for example. AR rolled out slowly, with many of its artists hampered by the complex tool kits, and the lack of enthusiasm from the art world in general. Artists have always reached for new tools and mediums to explore with, but it’s always taken the mainstream art world some time to catch up, even now, when Instagram artists outsell brick and mortar galleries.

But the numbers don’t lie. Consumers who experience something in AR engage 2.7 times longer with the artist, and are eleven times more likely to purchase a piece. “Augmented reality can turn the global community into an audience,” noted art and science researcher Vladimir Geroimenko in his book From an Emerging Technology to a Novel Creative Medium. “It allows ideas and messages to be digitally overlayed onto the real world.”

In response, many galleries have embraced AR as a way to engage with their customers. Apps such as Hoverlay, Inhaabit, and Artsy, let buyers view the works on their walls at home, no gallery visit necessary. Then there’s the growing number of tools that help artists create unique experiences in augmented reality, such as Artivive, Apple’s ARKit, Adobe’s Aero, and EyeJack, both free, which layer a digital experience over a physical space or artwork. “It’s really the illusion that a painting is moving on its own,” said Australian artist Charles Chapshaw. In 2019, New York’s MoMa offered visitors free AR apps to enhance their viewing pleasure, and Apple commissioned digital artists for its AR art walks in San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

It’s also an emerging money maker. In February 2020, London’s Saatchi Gallery had thirty-plus augmented reality artworks for sale, including Come Together, an acrylic work by Karina Matheus and Gray Matter by Laura Sissoko, that comes to life through the associated app. And later this year in October 2020, auction house Christie’s will be selling their first AR work — at a suggested retail value of $775,000. Social media’s been key for these artist’s distribution strategy, but even as it enabled them to reach larger audiences than before (prior to this tech, they had no easy way to “display” their creations) they’re still a niche segment of the art space.

Kallmeyer’s vision for the future was clear; he wanted to build a platform and community for AR enthusiasts and creators to design and share their work, but he hadn’t thought through the process when he quit his job. He lived in the most expensive city in the US, and had three months of savings to live off. He had to prove his thesis — quickly.

He bought three standing desks for his apartment, and dug right in. The HoloLens was powerful, but it was cumbersome to use, both as a consumer and as a creator. Beginners struggled to figure out how it worked, and there was no easy way for artists to make and share content. “I wanted to create a way that you could just put someone in a device and they would get it immediately,” he said. The user interface needed a complete redesign. His friend and former colleague at NCSoft, Benjamin Jordan, believed in his vision — I’ll help as much as I can,” he told him. But Jordan couldn’t commit full-time until some money came in.

Kallmeyer scratched out a pitch desk and started visiting venture capital firms. Raising in the Valley should be easy, he thought. Investors disagreed. One after the other, they turned him down. They didn’t see the same potential he did in the AR space. Discouraged, he wondered if they had a point. “It was them, not me,” he said. “This is a new field that doesn’t fit into any buckets. What’s true with 2D computing is not the same with 3D computing.” If anything, he was too early, the beginning of the wave, not the crest. He kept going, raising a small amount from friends and family to keep the lights on a little longer.

His dedication paid off when his AR demos at a local incubator caught the attention of Mercedes-Benz Japan. They were excited about doing something unique and hired him to create an AR training experience for their new cars. They were his first enterprise client. Other big names followed including Daimler and Microsoft. In June 2017, Jordan joined him as cofounder and CTO.

Credit: Enklu

They played around with names for their company. Kallmeyer had used CreateAR as a placeholder, but they wanted something stronger, a name that really connected with creators, designers, and maker communities. “A connection to the mission was important,” he said. Inclusivity was a key part of their values, but the domain name wasn’t available. Kallmeyer tried it with a K. Nope. How about an E? Enklu was available. It sounded fresh and modern, and a great rallying point if things
got tough.

At first, progress was painstakingly slow. Every slight change to a feature had to be tested on groups of people, and they’d reiterate and retest with that feedback. In the first redesign of their user friendly interface, only three out of ten people completed their tutorial without help. On the second round, four out of ten passed. On their third round, they dipped down to two. “Eventually we got to the point where ten out of ten people could activate buttons without needing help,” Kallmeyer said. On top of this, they built the Enklu Editor, a drag and drop way to insert virtual objects into a world. Now that they’d built their platform, they needed a showcase. People had to see it to get it.

Enlivening events

In March 2018, Leila Amirsadeghi, the chief experience manager for Onedome, an experiential events company, was on the hunt for show stopping artists that had a unique spin on technology. She had six months to turn her chosen venue, the former
International Museum of Art in San Francisco, into a surreal wonderland for the senses, and she needed to fill the imposing space with cutting edge artworks.

The museum’s inbuilt architectural design was perfect for an experiential playground, equipped with bridges, a bubbling brook, and tall marble columns. “Art has been very niche to date, but our vision is to open it up to everyone, even for artists who may not have been considered artists before,” she said. For her, this nexus was the merge of art and technology. “Our mission is to create and inspire collaboration and connection between creative communities.” She wanted something to bring this idea to life in a way that would wow the novice and jaded techie alike.

The name Enklu came up in her research, and she invited them to pitch her. Kallmeyer put her in a HoloLens, and transported her to one of the AR experiences he’d created, using his in-scene editor, a glowing 3D landscape of giant glowing mushrooms, foliage, and woodland creatures that superimposed themselves over the mundane world. Amirsadeghi was impressed. “We plan to open in six months,” she told him. “Can you be ready for then?”

Kallmeyer was excited by the offer — and the retainer and revenue split — but was nervous about the scale. Enklu had a track record of running great HoloLens experiences for four people at a time, but she was talking about hundreds! There would be a lot of technical problems to solve. But he couldn’t turn down such a big opportunity. Amirsadeghi said they had a ten year lease, with spin offs planned across the world. Getting in at the start of that would be huge. He said yes.

He built out his team using talent from local maker meetups, including 20-year-old programmer Ganga Baird as a producer, and tapping former children’s book author, Daisy Berns as director of operations. They had 20,000 square feet of venue to map in 3D and design a multilayered AR experience for. Kallmeyer titled their project The Unreal Garden. Being tied to a physical location freed the team to flex their creative muscles. They tethered many of their AR experiences to real world objects — for example, when you looked at a swaying bush through the HoloLens, a bunny rabbit would jump out and hop down to the brook. Viewers could follow the rabbit here, and reach forward to touch the glowing circle above it, which
led them down another path.

Enklu reached out to their communities for contributions and received artwork from numerous digital painters and sculptors, including painter Android Jones, known for his 3D psychedelic works (his visuals displayed at Coachella, The Smithsonian and during DJ Tipper’s sets) and sculptor Jasmine Pradissitto, a millinery favorite of British royals. Their installations trembled and morphed when viewed in AR. Their boundary pushing work transcended genres and realities. It was the best thing Kallmeyer had ever created. “Just magical,” he said. “The idea was to inspire wonder and it felt like we were doing what we wanted to be doing.”

Credit: Zara Stone

He built a number of selfie stations into the experience, places where people could gather and take mixed reality pictures of their time in the garden. “Social media drives people here,” Amirsadeghi told him. “Giving them free content helps fans leverage this for you.”

They opened in October 2018. “Leave your expectations at home,” Amirsadeghi told the assorted press. “We’re doing things that have never been done before.”

An unreal time

Over the next couple of months, the Unreal Garden was busy. Visitors walked around the space marveling at the delicate fluttering of AR butterflies, and enjoying the artwork that shook and morphed under their gaze. “You could wander around for hours interacting with everything,” said 22-year-old Lauren Brant, on vacation from Los Angeles. More and more people arrived — they’d seen it on social media and were intrigued. The artists were thrilled, as this exposure led to an increase in their sales. “The technology lets people create a conversation with the art in front of them; you can interact and touch
the art in a way you can’t do in a museum,” Kallmeyer said. Thirty to forty thousand people visited, dwarfing any other experience he’d run.

But after nine months in business, he got a call from Amirsadeghi — Onedome was shutting down, and they needed Enklu to come and collect up their tech. The exhibit was well attended, but not enough to justify their primetime location, she said.

It was devastating news. The whole team was speechless. They sat down, and looked at each other in shock. Kallmeyer knew that sales had dipped, but he thought they’d pick up over the holidays. He’d never considered it would end. This was Enklu’s showpiece, the culmination of everything they’d worked for. It was hard taking it apart, like tearing off pieces of their bodies. “The Unreal Garden will always be a swan song,” he said. “But we didn’t have time to mourn.”

Beginning again

Onedome was Enklu’s main source of revenue and without them, Enklu’s future was uncertain. “We went all in on Onedome,” he admitted. But they had to keep going; prior to this he’d booked a showcase at Los Angeles gaming expo E3, hoping to get some leads. It was already paid up, so he crossed his fingers and hoped.

They demoed their newest tool, Enklu Reveal, at their E3 booth, a robust interactive display that generated real-time reflection of mixed reality worlds. Techies danced in front of the screen, laughing as angel wings and monster heads sprouted from their bodies. This interest persuaded corporate clients that they had something special, and they hired Enklu to produce experiences for their companies. “Within two to three weeks, we closed revenue in outbound leads that matched revenue from quarter one with Onedome,” he said. They ran a Halloween display at Universal Studios, and a spooky hologram
event for LinkedIn employees.

Now that cashflow wasn’t as big a deal, they had time to think about their next steps. Creating corporate experiences would always be part of their business model, but their idea had always been about making space for creative communities to flourish. There were so few resources for people starting out in AR. During Onedome, visitors had asked about how they could get involved, and Enklu had run a few Augmented Reality 101 workshops in response. They’d been sold out.

Kallmeyer discussed the idea with his team. Where did they stand on building a coworking space for AR enthusiasts? He was overwhelmed by their response. They didn’t just like the concept, they loved it. “This opens up this industry to people who don’t have a programming background,” said operations director Daisy Berns. “We can broaden the scope of the content that’s out there.” It sounds like an AR eden, said another. That name stuck.

A space for creation

They picked a shuttered restaurant in San Francisco’s Westfield mall as homebase for E.den. Alongside the desks, screens, and headsets, Berns decorated it with living walls and shrubs. “They give it an immersive feel, to inspire innovative thinking,” she said; she wanted artists to use these assets in their designs. “You’ll see hologram butterflies fly around a tree, but you can touch the tree,” she said. “It’s just a layer on top of the reality that we’re in.”

They did a soft open in late 2019, and a formal one in January 2020. Their tagline is play, create, and share. People can drop in and play with their headsets and design their own AR worlds using the Enklu Editor and assets library. “I like to call it Google Docs for AR, because of how easy it is to collaborate and share projects,” Kallmeyer said. “It makes AR creation much more
accessible.”

It’s simple enough that I created a forest full of towering oaks and mystical flying octopi in less than twenty minutes. Each asset can be programmed to spin, shake, and tremble on cue. Enklu’s still finessing the finances of this model. It’s free for anyone to visit and play with their computers and headsets, but people who want to take them home have to sign up for a tiered package. Bigger organizations have their own tier. They also use the space to host paid talks with creators and experts in the community and for events.

“Super chill vibes, with room to play, work, and learn from the leading developers in AR,” Nathaniel Robinson, a 28-year-old software engineer, wrote in a review. “Fun for families too — there were little kids running around enjoying AR with their parents.”

Kallmeyer is thrilled with the feedback so far. “It’s a gift being able to help someone exercise their visions and provide them with mentorship and tools for development,” he said. But nothing stays still in the AR world. In November 2019, Microsoft released the HoloLens 2 and Enklu scrambled to figure out how to make the new hardware work with their products. The new headset has a bigger field of view and better gesture recognition, meaning endless possibilities for reinvention. But that’s just how it goes. “My goal is to empower artists to create,” Kallmeyer said. “This gives them more ways to do it.”

EMPOWER ARTISTS TO CREATE

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