Monday, November 28, 2011
Interview with Neville Spiteri, TheBlu
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Neville Spiteri is co-founder of Venice-based WEMO Media (www.wemomedia.com), a new, digital studio whose flagship product is TheBlu (www.theblu.com) an online, interactive experience focused on the world's oceans. WEMO Media is an interesting combination of Hollywood, computer games, and deep technical experience, one of the few companies we have seen which seems to combine both the worlds of high tech and software with content, interactive, and Hollywood. Among those involved in TheBlu are Andy Jones (Avatar), Joichi Ito (MIT Media Lab), Scott Yara (EMC/Greenplum), Yair Landau (MK Capital, formerly of Sony Pictures Entertainment), among others. We spoke with Neville about the company:
What is theBlu?
Neville Spiteri: We are a digital media startup, building a next generation studio that it is focusing on creating entertainment and web media, that scales to tens of hundreds of thousands of people, and potentially millions around the world. Our focus is really what we refer to as globally shared media. What we mean by that, is if you think about something like the Olympics, or the World Cup Soccer Finals, in that hundreds of millions of people are all focused on the same event, and are participating in a shared experience. We believe there is a tremendous opportunity to have that connected experience on a scale that hasn't been done before. As a studio, we are building entertainment titles that capture that spirit. Our first project is TheBlu, which is inspired by the oceans. Its global mission is to create all of the issues of aquatic life on the web, as an interactive, online world, so that people around the world can connect and participate in.
You've got an interesting team - combination of deep technology, enterprise software, computer gaming, special effects, Hollywood - how did the team come together?
Neville Spiteri: TheBlue and the projects we are going after are really uncharted territory. Specifically, we're interested in combining the elements of storytelling and traditional filmmaking, where you have this amazing wealth of experience around you. It's about how you reach and touch and inspire through visual storytelling. That's an important element of what we're doing. So, we reached out to and were fortune to attract very experience moviemakers, academy award winners, a key ingredient of what we're doing. Secondly, it's critical that we see the future of entertainment as being on the web, versus at the movie theater. We see the web having untapped potential for creating its own medium for artistic expression. We're not talking about taking traditional film, and puttig it on the web. We're actually using the web for what its native capabilities are--connectivity, the ability to have mass collaboration, and so on. Because of that, we've brought onto the team very experienced folks in interactive entertainment, social media, and web infrastructure, which are all key components of what we are doing. Thirdly, at the end of the day, because this is ultimately software, we are building a very large, scalable web system. Part of our DNA is pure software engineering, and dealing with that large amount of data. It's kind of a combination of web, social media, storytelling, an hard core software engineering, all of the required elements. It comes together pretty naturally because of the experiences we are creating.
How did you decide to start all of this?
Neville Spiteri: That' a great question. It's been over ten years that we've been thinking about this idea of globally shared media. About ten years ago, in 2000, a friend of ours, Andy Jones, who is an academy award winner on Avatar, introduced me to Scott Yara. At the time, my background up until then had been in digital media, computer generated movies, and video games. Scott's background was really the Internet, and content distribution networks, and media on the web. I had this vision of a next generaiton studio for awhile, when Scott calle dme. He too wanted to build a next generation online studio, and was very specifically interested in the ocean. Back in 2000, we actually tried this--to build an online studio--but the idea was ahead of its time, and failed. But, we knew there was something there. So Scott continued with Greenplum, his company at the time, and I went back to entertainment and back to Electronic Arts, and was there for a few years. In 2009, I was convinced the time was right. Now, you had a whole new layer of infrastructure, cloud computing, which made it possible to create experiences on a scale that was not technically possible before, and at a do-able cost. Secondly, consumer behavior has really evolved since then. Beyond the social graph, there is now a level of communications and collaboration on the web you haven't seen before. Third, people are spending money on the web, where they weren't ten years ago. There are lots of people who are subscribed to Pandora or whatever. As a result of that, I founded Wemo Media at the beginning of 2009. Last year, as I was about to pitch to venture capitalists and raise an institutional round, Scott called me up, because he had just exited his company. EMC had acquired Greenplum, so Scott joined me as co-founder, because he felt now was the time to do it. He joined as a co-founder and principal investors, and we've been heads down since then building TheBlu.
Can people see TheBlu now?
Neville Spiteri: Absolutely. We have a live, private beta today. We launched our private beta at the end of June, and since then have been working and operating in stealth mode. We've only been taking this to people in the last thirty to 45 days. If you go to TheBlu today, you can request an invite, and once you are sent an access code you'll be able to join TheBlu today. It's a beautiful experience for you to have today.
What's the business model behind TheBlu?
Neville Spiteri: At the highest level, we're an entertainment studio. Our business model is based on selling entertainment to consumers. The way we do that, is by focusing on creating content that our user base is interested enough to pay for. We currently have two models. One is a standard subscription model, where you will pay a monthly fee to access premium content. There is lots of TheBlu you can experience for free, but access to premium content will be subscriptions. That's one option, which we haven't rolled out in our beta yet. The second part of monetization is the virtual goods model, where we will be saying--here, we have this amazing inventory of beautiful artwork and ocean art. We've got each species and 3d models, works of art. Users can pay for and buy these, same as a user might pay for a music track on iTunes, or for an app in the App Store. It's a very similar model. Eventually, several other revenue streams will be accessible to us.
It is the accessibility of cloud computing which has enabled you to create this?
Neville Spiteri: There's no question, I think the cost of community computing, and the pay-per-use utility model that cloud computing provides makes it that much more accessible for startups to scale, and to essentially only provision as much hardware as you need at each stage of the growth in a company. That's a key change right there. For us, we are currently deployed on the Amazon EC2 cloud, and that essentially allows us to horizontally scale in the way that we need to.
Finally, what's the next thing for your company?
Neville Spiteri: We're just getting started. We've barely scratched the surface with TheBlu. There are lots of future titles we are looking at. We're now seeing TheBlu resonating tremendously with our beat users, who are now coming from over 40 different countries. We've got top tier universities collaborating with us, including TheBlu as part of their curriculum, and we're signing up artists to create art for TheBlu. We've got museums who want TheBlu installed. There's been a tremendous amount of resonance. The next step, is lighting up as many screens, in as many cities around the world, to fulfill the vision of this globally connected experience. There are months and years of continued development on TheBlu, both in terms of the amount of content, as well as additional features. What you're experiencing today in TheBlu is just the bare bones. We've got several layers of more sophisticated storytelling and interactivity which we will be adding to TheBlu. And, beyond TheBlu, we're already starting back-of-the-envelop conceptualization of what the next title is going to be.
Thanks, and good luck!