This week on the XLIVE Interview Series, we sat down with Alex Hertel, CEO and co-founder of Xperiel. Xperiel merges augmented reality and IoT to combine the digital and physical world together into what the company calls the “Real World Web.” We spoke to Alex about a number of topics, including the opportunity he and his co-founder saw when starting the company, how Xperiel helps brands interact with their customers and how augmented reality helps engage eSports fans. Read the full interview below.
- Thanks for sitting down with us today Alex! First, can you give us a brief overview of Xperiel and the opportunity you saw when founding your company?
Before my brother Philipp and I became entrepreneurs, we were computer science Ph.D candidates at the University of Toronto. During those formative years of poring over theories and absorbing lectures from some of the brightest minds in the field, we were continuously challenged to see the world through a different lens.
With every paper we wrote, we had to prove that our statements were supported by a larger set of principles or an accepted “big picture” way of thinking. Nothing was ever seen in a silo, but rather a piece of a grander concept. These lessons from academia influenced the work we did at our previous company called Walleto—which was acquired by Google and became the foundation of Google Wallet—and the founding of Xperiel in 2013. When we started Xperiel, we set out to build a new platform and programming language while also challenging people to rethink how they perceive the relationship between existing and emerging technologies, similar to how our professors challenged us.
One of the biggest opportunities we saw was the explosion in demand for emerging technologies like AR, VR and the IoT. Harnessing this opportunity was the goal we had in mind when starting Xperiel – to build an operating system for a world where these technologies impact all our lives.
- You mentioned working at Google. Can you tell us about your time there, some of the best pieces of knowledge you picked up, and how this experience helped you with Xperiel?
Google is one of the most successful big tech companies in history and it’s hard to spend any time there without learning a lot. It’s a stimulating environment where you cross paths with fascinating people all the time, like meeting a NASA astronaut or Olympic gold medal winner in the cafeteria at lunch. While at Google I took advantage of these opportunities to learn from brilliant people who came from diverse backgrounds, and to join specialized teams and learn from them. For instance, I learned a lot about how to sell to enterprise clients by just joining the sales team on the road and watching how they did things.
- Many of us are familiar with the World Wide Web (WWW). What is Xperiel’s Real World Web (RWW) Platform?
The Real World Web is a new type of network that connects everything together. Any hardware, software, social media, traditional media and even physical objects – stadiums, stores or consumer goods – can now be a part of a digital fabric that spans the traditional gulf between online and offline. With the RWW, any consumer armed with a smartphone can trigger digital interactions with real-world objects and experience well-known brands in completely new ways. You can think of it as the physical world merging with the digital one, where every brand engagement looks more like Pokemon GO, and less like a consumer experiencing a traditional advertisement. The reason for this is clear: the next generation of consumers wants ads that are more gamified, more interactive and more engaging.
Much like the WWW, the RWW has extremely broad applications that can touch all business verticals, including eSports. We’ve figured out how to unify any hardware and software, past, present, and future, to create physical/digital ecosystems so that infrastructure in stadiums and arenas can become a digital playground and every store becomes a connected smart retailing environment; but even beyond that, they’ll all be part of the same network, so consumers can start their digital journey using a smartphone (or any mobile device) to interact physically with a stadium or arena. Even if fans are not physically at a stadium, but instead streaming their favorite League of Legends or Counter Strike tournament at home, they can use their smartphones to interact with their favorite stars and streamers in new, custom-made ways. We’re also working with big brands to create a whole new sponsorship inventory that allows them to engage at a much deeper level with gamers and to do so using the most cutting-edge, immersive, technologies.
- How does Xperiel’s technology connect the IoT with esports?
While the Internet of Things (IoT) provides many possibilities for new and existing companies, many continue to lock IoT apps and devices in their own closed ecosystems. The end result is a lot of things that connect to the Internet but not to each other, as they would in a true Internet of Things. This practice prevents the IoT from functioning as a holistic network of objects that can comprehensively communicate together – something that has always been promised by IoT companies. We don’t think these companies are doing it because they don’t want to, rather it’s just tricky to ensure that everything can interact with everything else.
At Xperiel, we’ve spent several years working on just that. We’ve created a way for IoT applications to enhance live events by connecting already existing infrastructure in stadiums and arenas – such as video screens, ticket scanners, turnstiles, ibeacons, concession stand cash registers and others in a true “internet of things” network that focuses on improving the fan experience. While some may consider an object like a turnstile as primitive, we believe that if connected digitally to a larger network, and used in a coordinated way, creates another resource that can be used to provide consumers with a more fun, gamified, digitally-interactive experience that blends both the real and digital worlds through their favorite mobile device. In short, it turns the arena or stadium into a giant video game console.
Consider the excitement that can be created during a championship game when fans enter the stadium arena and their favorite team, or their favorite character, greets them on their smartphone. Then during an intermission, they have a chance to guess on the outcome of the next match and have their profile shown on thousands of screens throughout the stadium, putting them in the middle of the action. These are the types of fan experiences we help our customers create.
- How does Xperiel’s technology work with mobile apps?
Xperiel’s technology and fan experiences integrate into existing iOS and Android apps so fans don’t have to download separate mobile applications. Even better, each of our experiences, or activations, is fully developed from idea to execution in around two weeks without any software engineers using Xperiel’s patented graphical programming language, Rox.
As a result, programming a mobile app doesn’t require the expenses of large software development teams and multiple versions of an app across iOS, Android and other devices. Applications or experiences can be created quickly and cheaply, and updated just as quickly without downtime or expensive, time-consuming changes. The best part is that once these experiences are built, they can work anywhere—iOS, Android, online or even on the jumbotron at a championship game.
This device-independence allows our current customers to focus on the quality of the experiences, rather than staying within a certain budget and allows for a greater degree of customization and creativity in our partner organizations. Using Xperiel, franchises like the New York Jets, Sacramento Kings and the Rugby World Cup Sevens have already been able to turn stadiums like New York’s MetLife Stadium, Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center and San Francisco’s AT&T Park into interactive playgrounds that function like giant video game consoles for fans.
- It’s no surprise that professional sports are using technology to innovate the fan experience. Can you tell us a little more about your work with the Sacramento Kings, the New York Jets and the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament?
Xperiel’s technology is unique in that it can be customized for a variety of entertainment environments. The “I Called It” experience the New York Jets provided to their fans is an example of our predictive gaming capabilities. The game allowed fans, both in the arena and watching at home, to play along in real time with the action on the field and anticipate what their favorite team would do. This included everything from scoring touchdowns and field goals to punts, turnovers, and safeties. Predictions were locked before the first play of each drive so that fans couldn’t make easy last-second calls. Fans received points for correct predictions, and the top three fans on the leaderboard at the end of the game were awarded Jets-branded prizes such as jerseys and helmets.
This mobile app experience became the fans’ companion while watching the game, allowing them to casually play along with the action during the entire 3+ hour event. The engagement rates per game session were off the charts, with a remarkable 44% brand-scan conversion rate per game session.
While this is a traditional sports example, it’s important to note that the fan experience with predictive gaming in eSports is surprisingly similar and easily translates over. Instead of predicting a touchdown, fans at either a live event or watching on Twitch can predict results of Overwatch or Fortnite matches. This allows them to be part of the game, driving more interest in the match result with the only difference being the platform on which they interact with the fan experience.
- How do Xperiel’s tools translate specifically for esports fans, can you compare and contrast this with traditional sports fans?
The demographic for esports skews younger than traditional sports fans. The Xperiel platform provides unique opportunities for brands that want to reach a younger audience that identifies as gamers and wants to interact more closely with their favorite streamers and eSports teams. The majority of fans at an esports event are gamers themselves, so there’s a perfect match between that market and our target audience of individuals who are excited by a gamified experience.
One of the ways this can be achieved is by creating a more gamified way to predict match outcomes and win in-game rewards. Through Twitch streamer sponsorships, Xperiel allows brands to directly support and sponsor viewer initiatives during certain video streams. While digital brand interactions have always included simple pop-up ads and banners, using Xperiel’s new experiential approach, connecting with sponsors now provides consumers with in-game digital goods and currency — a mutually-beneficial partnership that trades brand awareness for an edge in some of today’s most popular games.
For brands that want to directly sponsor major eSports games, Xperiel provides new, gamified ways for them to connect with consumers looking to earn physical prizes for in-game achievements. Whether physically present in the stadium at eSports events, or streaming their favorite game at home, everyone can now have the opportunity to interact with sponsor brands.
- Can you share a little more information about how Xperiel helps promote brand partnerships?
Each of Xperiel’s activations has a very strong brand partner component. In the past, we’ve collaborated closely with top sponsoring brands like Aquafina, Tostitos, and Nike to provide consumers with more avenues to interact with their favorite teams by becoming a customer of their sponsoring brand. Fans were able to use Xperiel’s vision technology to scan Aquafina bottles and Tostitos packaging and answer Nike trivia questions to receive branded “power-ups” which they could then apply to their predictions.
Further incentives were created by adding extra “power” to these power-ups: giving correct predictions a 4x payout if correct, courtesy of the brand, thereby fostering a strong incentive to keep playing and purchasing branded products. By physically connected the user to the product and sale, this was a radical departure from the traditional paradigm of maximizing brand logo impressions.
Branded power-ups could also be earned on off-game days, multiplying the opportunities to interact with the brand throughout the week between games – even when the team was resting – further extending the value of the campaign.
It’s critical to understand that the old way of engaging with consumers, by treating them as passive observers and just putting a brand logo in front them, is not working anymore. Since eSports fans, in particular, are often gamers themselves, they must be engaged in a manner that speaks to them. To meet this audience where they are, we’ve created an entirely new, interactive, gamified advertising format where the game is the ad and the ad is the game. This new type of native ad format is what allows us to achieve the conversion rates and session times that we do.
At Xperiel, we believe that the next generation of fans must be engaged using the next generation of technology. The way to achieve this is for forward-thinking brands to drive awareness by creating game-like engagement experiences that promote their products.
- How does augmented reality help engage esports fans?
Augmented reality gives fans a front seat to the action no matter where they may be located. No longer merely passive spectators, fans now they can immerse themselves in the action by playing along with their favorite game.
eSports fans represent the most technically sophisticated and demanding audience segment of consumers. As a result, they require the use of the most cutting-edge emerging technologies to be won over. Not only have most eSports fans literally grown up with a video game controller in their hands, but they can already control the world around them with the swipe of a finger.
Xperiel strives to provide brands with radically new, immersive, capabilities to help keep this new type of consumer engaged while they’re in the seats at a stadium or watching at home.
- Where do you see the esports industry in the next 1 year? 5 years?
eSports will continue to grow at breakneck speed over the next year and we’ll see many new records being set in terms of Twitch viewership, event attendance, and revenue.
Over the next five years eSports will become a serious competitor to traditional sports. With the recent overturning of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) by U.S. Supreme Court, we’re also going to see a rise of sports betting in both eSports and traditional sports.