18 July 2019
Hong Kong firm spans virtual globe
Midway through his career in law and investment banking, Devin Ehrig had a hankering to do something more creative.
As the son of a Hollywood producer, the United States-born Hong Kong resident had “grown up in the movie industry”, and as the profession he had pursued began to lose its lustre, he was in the right place to believe that an alternative career was possible.
“I speak Chinese and was working with a lot of companies in Mainland China using Hong Kong as a springboard to go global,” Mr Ehrig said. During these business dealings he met his now business partner Amit Chatterjee, a specialist in 3D animation and software development, who was similarly “bored with” his corporate role.
Pooling their expertise and finances, the pair launched Shadow Factory, a creative media production studio, in August 2016.
Their timing was perfect. Virtual reality (VR) was just emerging, and the partners saw its potential for a broad range of commercial applications.
“We started out as a production company making VR experiences,” Mr Ehrig explained. “The tools are the same as those for video games, but we also use them for corporate training, marketing and branding activities.”
Building capacity and resources
As the business, launched with just the two co-founders, started to develop and build, so did its capacity in terms of resources and expertise.
“With our ever-growing pool of talent, we shifted from a singular focus on VR into a full-stack immersive media production platform, including VR, augmented reality (AR) and visual effects (VFX), producing content for TV and film, music videos and corporate events,” Mr Ehrig said.
The numerous branded titles Shadow Factory created in its first two years include windsurfing and snow-surfing simulators as well as a reflex-based “ride and catch” game, commissioned for a summer collaboration between fashion designer Michael Kors and the DFS Group. The game won in its category in the 2017 Vega Digital Awards, and was cited as one of the Top 4 VR Experiences at the 2018 MIPTV Conference in Cannes.
One of the start-up’s big breakthroughs was a partnership with Facebook and Instagram on their Spark AR platform. After being invited to the closed beta development for the platform, Shadow Factory was named as a preferred vendor for producing AR camera effects in the Asia-Pacific region and North America. To date the studio has produced effects with more than 1 million uses.
In 2019 Shadow Factory has created an AR Instagram face filter for fitness brand Sweat. Within one month of its April launch the beautifying filter had reached more than 4.6 million people worldwide, generating 12 million impressions.
Shadow Factory co-founder Mr Chatterjee said this example highlights how easy it is for brands to provide immersive media to consumers. “The medium allows for brands to tell their story in a different and more engaging way,” he said.
Other major corporate clients include Singapore Airlines, for which Shadow Factory did a VR project for its KrisFlyer loyalty programme; Microsoft for its X Box advertising campaign in Sydney; and various projects with large agencies such as Ogilvy and the Grey Group. For the Hong Kong Tourism Board, the team produced a hand-held holographic experience hosted on visiting tourists’ personal mobile phones, a small “take home” version of the city’s extremely popular Symphony of Lights show.
From Hong Kong, Shadow Factory creates digital solutions for companies “all around the world”, including the US, Canada and the United Kingdom. “Our main source of clients is marketing agencies, as our products will fit into myriad campaigns,” Mr Ehrig said.
Advantages of Hong Kong
Shadow Factory’s headcount now stands at more than 60 full-time staff. The partners had to “knock on a lot of doors” to start with, but once they gained a foothold the growth trajectory was rapid.
“One of the biggest pluses for Hong Kong is that you can bump into people from all walks of life, and they’re willing to try something,” he said. “In North America, trying to build up contacts is much harder. In Hong Kong, you can be out networking seven days a week.”
Advantages such as great internet, international banking, intellectual property (IP) protection and straightforward employment contracts also help to make Hong Kong “the perfect city” for a digital media start-up.
Now in the throes of opening a branch office in the US, where Shadow Factory works with a major health partner on a project involving VR surgeries, Mr Ehrig says that “we were in the right place”.
“The message I try to share with everyone is that Hong Kong has helped us grow this business into what it is today,” he said. “I don’t know that we could have done it in any other city.”
Hong Kong’s strengths in AR and VR will be on display at two Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) events later in 2019 – DesignInspire and the HKTDC International ICT Expo.