Ian Taylor – Flying Kiwi 2008
You would be hard pressed to get Ian Taylor (Ngati Kahungunu) to concede that he has had any impact whatsoever on technology.
Instead he marvels at the changes that technology has made to his life.
Raised in the small East Coast settlement of Raupunga, halfway between Napier and Gisborne, he remembers a house with no electricity, his mother cooking on a coal range, reading Eagle comics by the light of a gas lantern and listening to Life with Dexter on a battery powered radio.
"I still remember the day we got electricity in our house, the way a single light bulb filled the room with daylight, just at the flick of a switch.
"I don't think we called it technology in those days - but whatever we called it, it had a huge impact on me. At eight years of age I figured if you could do that by flicking a switch you could do anything."
Despite his fascination with the changing world around him, there was little to indicate in his early years that Ian would ever be involved in the world of technology. He enrolled at Victoria University to study for a business degree. Six weeks in, he was faced with the first of a number of choices that would change the course of his life. A class mate from his old school called him. The lead singer in his band had just gone off to join New Zealand's top rock band The Formulya. Would Ian be interested in taking his place?
"I guess I was one of those guys who didn't spend too much time weighing up the consequences of a decision. If it looked like it would be more fun to go in this direction rather than that - I went. I figured there would be many opportunities to return to University if I chose to - this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join a rock-n-roll band so I jumped at it." Perhaps it was a sign of things to come that the band was called The Kal-Q-Lated Risk.
Ian was 18 at the time and the oldest member of the band. "I never really thought about it back then but here we were, four kids, all under the age of 18, and we had just started our own business. It was a steep learning curve but we never once doubted that we were doing the right thing because we loved it."
The next three years were spent travelling the length and breadth of New Zealand in an old Commer van, playing anywhere they could find a hall or pub to play in. On a tour of the South Island, Ian recalls recording a Xmas special in the DNTV2 television studios in Dowling Street in Dunedin. It was a cover version of Michael Jackson's 'I saw mummy kissing Santa Claus'! At the time he had no way of knowing that almost 20 years later he would be back in the very same building working with a group of young computer science graduates who would end up designing a 3D graphics application that would virtually change the way people looked at televised sport.
In the intervening years Ian served time in the army - "It was the only raffle I ever won - I got called up for compulsory military training in the very last intake before Labour scrapped it. Again, it was one of those choice things. I could have got an exemption because I was in a band where others relied on me but I already knew that I had gone as far as I could as a singer and the others would be better off with someone else. I rationalised that getting called up was a sign that someone out there agreed!" On completing his army stint at Waiouru Ian headed south to Dunedin. "It was another one of those 'toss the dice moments" that ends up sending your life down a path you had never contemplated. I was a person of no fixed abode once I finished with the army and I had really fond memories of Dunedin from my days in the band, so that's where I went." Ian spent a year working in the bottling plant of the Speights Brewery - "beer was on tap for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea" - before finally returning to university and a law degree.
After completing his degree Ian tossed the dice once more. "I had a choice of starting work as a lawyer or taking up an offer from TVNZ to work as a presenter on the kid's show Spot On. "I chose the one that looked like more fun!"
For the next 12 years Ian worked in television in Dunedin as a presenter, director, writer and producer. In the late 80s he was offered a job in current affairs in Wellington. It was time to toss the dice once more: move to Wellington or leave TVNZ altogether and stay in Dunedin.
"It was probably the most important decision I have ever made. To decide you are already living in the place you want to live, that there is no more looking for greener pastures, is an incredibly focusing experience."
It was this decision, to leave TVNZ and set up his own production company in Dunedin, which would finally bring Ian face to face with a world that he had hitherto only experienced from the outside. Television had gone from black and white to colour, videotape had replaced film and live satellite links meant significant events from around the world were now beamed into living rooms around New Zealand as they were happening.
"It was 1990 and I had only just set up my own television production company when someone suggested I should take a look at the work that was being done down at Otago University in the Computer Science Department." In a small villa in Leith Street Ian met Dr Geoff Wyvill, head of the departments Computer Graphics Lab, and a team of young students who were doing things with graphics that Ian had thought was only possible in the big Hollywood studios.
"At that time TVNZ was sending all of its 3D computer work to the US - the spinning logos for news, sports and prime time shows like Holmes. I remember asking Dr Wyvill if his students could do that sort of work and he replied, 'Do you want it done how they've done it or would you like it done properly?' I thought at the time that this was a typical academic response and that these guys were totally underestimating how the real world worked. A week later he came back with his students' version of what the Holmes graphics could look like and I saw exactly what he meant. I never doubted him ever again."
In a deal that Ian says could only have happened in Dunedin, the university and Taylormade joined forces to create Animations Research Ltd. The deal was done on a handshake. After eight months the joint venture had clocked up over $150,000 in debt and had $9,000 worth of work on its book. It was at this stage the university decided that, maybe, this wasn't their core business and suggested the venture be shut down.
"I knew the stuff this team was doing was world class. I also knew that, if we were to remain in Dunedin, we had to be in a business that was a world leader. Why would people come to us if it wasn't?"
Instead of closing the venture down, Ian bought out the university. His team of programmers agreed to hang in for another three months, until Christmas, to see if things turned around. A day after signing the deal to take over ARL Ian got a call from a commercial director that he had sent some test tapes to. "His name was David Green; he was an American director who had made an amazing commercial with flying deck chairs. I figured that a guy who thought like that, who used computer graphics like that, might just understand what we were trying to do and what we might be able to offer him."
It seems he did - Green had a job for United Airlines and, although ARL had never made a television commercial before, Green backed them. It was the turning point. The United Airlines commercial, produced entirely using ARL's own software – “We couldn't afford to buy the software the big guys were using overseas” - was followed by ground-breaking commercials for Air New Zealand, the Flying Gannets, the Lynx Sea Gulls and the skiing penguin for Bluebird.
The Air New Zealand Flying Gannets and the Bluebird penguin signalled a significant shift in what could be done using 3D computer graphics. "It all seems pretty normal stuff these days but back in 1995 it was a big breakthrough."
It was a breakthrough that was internationally recognised at the Siggraph Computer Graphics Convention, the world's largest computer graphics convention, in Los Angeles that year. Both commercials were selected for screenings by the International Jury. Bluebird received the ultimate honour, being selected for the prestigious Electronic Theatre Screenings, which are reserved for significant contributions to the art of computer animations.
"These screenings take place in a theatre that seats a couple of thousand at a time and it was full at every screening throughout the convention. On the night we went we were sitting up the back of the theatre and the work that was on display was amazing. There were early test scenes from Toy Story, special effects from the first of the Batman movies, ground-breaking stuff from all over the world. We were pretty nervous sitting back there thinking 'how the hell have we ended up here and what is going to happen when our TVC comes on?'. Well it came on screen, it looked huge, but I will never forget the swell of laughter that seemed to start at the front of the theatre and roll up to the back where we were sitting. And when it finished everyone was clapping and cheering. It was amazing.
"It was a great night to be a Kiwi. The world suddenly felt a whole lot smaller and you realised that Kiwis can do this stuff and compete out here with the rest of the world." It wasn't the first experience for ARL on the world stage. In 1991, over a cup of coffee, Geoff Wyvill and the three programmers who were now working full time with Ian were in deep discussion about the black art of the Americas Cup. There had to be some way to explain this sport, and the world fascination with it, to an often bewildered television audience. The idea was born to create a real-time 3D graphics package that would, at the very least, be able to show which boat was actually in front!
In 1992, in a world first, Americas Cup boats were tracked in real time off the coast of San Diego using software designed in Dunedin. Bruno Trouble, the man often described as 'Mr Americas Cup,' is in no doubt about the significance of what ARL achieved that day. He says:"There were three inventions that changed the Americas Cup. The first was Marconi and his radio, the second was the advent of film and television and the third was ARL's 3D graphics package."
Since its introduction in 1992, ARL's graphics package has been an essential component of every Americas Cup In 2000 ARL looked to the internet as a new means of communicating the story of the Americas Cup. "The internet was already proving to be an essential part of our operation. Because we had made the decision that we wanted to continue living and working in Dunedin the internet was a no brainer for us. We used it to give us better communication with clients overseas. We often joked that it was easier for a client in London to communicate directly with us then it was for them to meet and talk with our competitors who lived in London and who had not yet recognised the power of the web."
In the late 90s Ian had turned his mind to how this tool might be used as another means for distributing the story of the Americas Cup. It was seeing his son on his computer, flying a plane in an online simulation with a mate of his across town that the idea started to take shape. The gaming industry was already heading down the track of on line interactivity and, although it was early days, Ian recognised that the answer lay there.
In 1999 he set up a partnership with Auckland based company Terrabyte with the goal of using the Americas Cup in Auckland in 2000 to launch another world first: real-time 3D graphics of a sporting event, delivered to the world on line. It was not an easy sell.
"We approached a number of New Zealand companies for support but no one really understood what it was we were trying to sell. The thought of following a sporting event, live on the internet, with no video, just seemed a step too far for anyone at the time."
Except for Mr Americas Cup, Bruno Trouble. Trouble looked at the proposal and asked only one question: "Can you make it work?" Satisfied with the answer, Bruno provided the funding on a handshake and Virtual Spectator was born. In 2000 the Americas Cup was beamed live to the world, not only via television but also, in a world first, via the internet.
"I guess the irony for me has always been that, in this case, it took a Frenchman to believe in us."
"I have often despaired that in New Zealand we are very quick to talk up the innovative abilities of Kiwis, our can-do attitude, but when it comes to trusting in those same people to deliver, the walk doesn't often match the talk.
"So many great little New Zealand companies are overlooked because decision makers feel safer with the big names from overseas." A shining exception was Airways Corporation. The New Zealand SOE was on the lookout for a new, state-of-the-art air traffic control simulator for its training facility in Christchurch. They had searched all the big name providers in the industry when someone suggested they ask the guys at ARL.
"I remember the phone call. This guy asks, 'Have you ever built an air traffic control simulator?' Of course the answer was no but it was his next question that really blew me away. 'Would you like to?' These guys put everything on the line for us. They believed we could do it and then they backed us all the way. In my experience that is rare from a quasi government body.” The air traffic control simulator was installed 18 months later and is widely regarded as one of the most photorealistic simulators in the world.
In recent years Ian's team at Animation Research and Taylormade Media have continued to push the boundaries of technology in their typical Kiwi fashion. One week in the Canary Islands covering a yacht race, the next, a team in India providing graphics for cricket, another in Dubai tracking off shore power boats or in Barcelona covering a new air sports event or heading to South Africa to cover a golf match.
Closer to home, there’s a new 3D stereo technology developed in-house to tell the story of Aoraki Mt Cook, a virtual lathe designed to teach kids the basics of engineering, a kid's web site that merges television and the internet in a way never attempted before in New Zealand. And through it all Ian still maintains he has had very little impact on technology in this country. "Technology has helped me; it's not the other way round. I have been really fortunate to have been surrounded by a group of Kiwis who have understood the role technology can play and who have had the skills, the world-class skills, to realise the potential of it all.
"I will always feel that I have been the beneficiary of the things that technology can do. I like to tell kids that, because of the great things others have done with technology you can dream your dreams and, the chances are, there is some technology out there that will help you make it come true. My son Sam is profoundly deaf but he has been given the gift of hearing through an amazing technology called a cochlear implant. He is now in medical school studying to be a doctor; he snow boards, surfs, loves music, does all of those things young people do. Because of technology I can now talk to him on the phone. When you couldn't do something like that before, being able to do it reminds you that people have done some truly great things in the name of technology. It's like that light bulb back in the 50s. If you can do that with a flick of a switch, you can do anything.