A conversation with Immersive Media president and CEO Myles McGovern

The CEO of 360-degree video pioneer Immersive Media on his $100-million sale, a virtual reality Super Bowl and working with Taylor Swift

When Hollywood special-effects juggernaut Digital Domain bought tech firm Immersive Media in January for $100 million, some may have been surprised to learn that the world’s first producer of 360-degree video was based in Kelowna. Over the past decade, the company has quietly developed video recording technology, and editing and production software that has powered the latest craze in advertising and media: virtual reality. CEO Myles McGovern got involved in 2004—commuting from his home in Toronto to head office in Portland until 2007, when he and his wife moved back west to Vernon. Three years later, McGovern and his business partners bought the company outright and relocated the head office to Kelowna. The 53-year-old reflects on the company’s rise from low-profile startup to an Emmy-award-winning producer of Taylor Swift videos. 

How did you first get introduced to 360-degree camera technology?
After graduating from SFU in business, I worked 10 years for Xerox; a week after I left, somebody called me up and said, “I saw this cool technology at this company called Immersive Media down in Portland.” It was 1995. So we went down to meet these guys. They had filmed the first 360 video; it was some kids playing in a basketball court. I sat in a dome, it was about 16 feet wide, and the kid throws the ball and it goes over your head. And then he said, “Here, try these goggles on,” and they were head-mounted display, and I thought, “Wow, that’s really neat.” But it was so far ahead of its time that I said, “I’m gonna pass right now.”

Virtual Reality experiences powered by ImmersiveAnd then you started another company?
Yes. Tom Calvert was the VP of research at SFU back in the early ’90s. We started up a company called MC2, which produced communications/education collaboration software, and spun it out of SFU. MC2 had about 20 million users in 55 countries and had a product called First Class—it was probably one of the dominant products. We sold the company in 2004 and then these guys in Portland phoned me back and said, “Hey, the world’s changed.” I started as an investor with Immersive Media and ended up becoming the CEO. We brought it to the CIA and said, “We want to build this camera technology.” So we built our first cameras for the CIA for street-level reconnaissance work. We’ve continued to have good working relationships on the military side to help fund our research and development.

How did you get involved with Google Street View and the VR space?
In 2006 we brought the technology to Google. We actually filmed the first 75 cities of Street View and produced all the infrastructure for them. We were filming it using our camera technology, taking out one frame every five metres in full-motion 360 imagery. Google decided to bring that in-house, but our passion was more on full-motion video as opposed to stills. Then, two years ago, we started working with Samsung on their Gear VR product. The gaming piece—it was neat, but all of a sudden they realized that the video could touch anybody. It wasn’t just for gamers.

Do you think that soon everybody will be watching TV with VR headsets?
I believe every house will have a VR headset—but you’re not going to have a Super Bowl party and hand out headsets. Our vision is: you will be able to watch the game like you usually do—and then when something happens, be able to grab your headset and go, “Wow that was cool,” pan left and pan right, back it up and watch that play evolve. It’s much more of a social thing.

How did you get involved in Taylor Swift’s interactive video for “Blank Space”?
Radical Media, a creative agency out of New York that we’ve done work with, put together a pitch to Taylor Swift to do a highly interactive video which would be sponsored by American Express. It’s shot in a mansion in Long Island, and you can follow Taylor and her latest boyfriend through the mansion, or you can just hang out in the dining room and bizarre stuff will happen around you. We sent a crew, four or five guys, who filmed it, then came back and stitched it and edited it. I can tell you—you get sick of hearing the song over and over through post-production.

When Conan O’Brien introduced the “360” video segment on his show, he joked that it was designed by “me and my friends at AT&T.” Do you feel like you don’t get credit for your technology?
Oh sure, it happens all the time. It’s because AT&T wrote a big cheque as the sponsor. That’s one of the challenges in dealing with the brands—and that’s part of the whole reason for our relationship with Digital Domain. It allows us to scale and grow even more and address the branding issue and say, “Hey guys, this is actually us doing this; it’s not Mountain Dew or whoever.”