TRANSCRIPT: AREA 15: The Portal to the Paradigm Shifting Hybrid Customer Experience Revolution
[Innovation Heroes theme music] This episode of Innovation Heroes is brought to you by the new SHI. See SHI in a new light. Visit shi.com/newlight to learn more.
Welcome to SHI's Innovation Heroes, a podcast exploring the people and businesses making a difference in our constantly disrupted world. I'm your host, Ed McNamara. [Innovation Heroes theme music continues] [gentle music] With all the restrictions, lockdowns, re-openings, re-closings, new variants, and never-ending waves, there's one thing I'm really starting to miss: doing stuff, in-person, with other people. [crowd cheers] [crowd chatter] I know I'm not alone. Getting back to the great, real-life customer experience is something a lot of brands and people are looking forward to. I don't think any retailer or hospitality business worth their salt will ever take the magic of being together for granted again, which is exactly what I wanna talk about today on Innovation Heroes. This guest knows how to build something truly magical, and I'm going to see what lessons they can share with the rest of us. [upbeat electronic music] Our story starts in a mysterious, futuristic-looking bunker in the heart of Las Vegas with AREA15 stamped on the side of it. And to be frank, I still find it hard to explain the awesome wonderland contained within.
There's food, there's immersive experiences, there's incredible art, there's design, there's unique retail, there's technology interlacing all of it, and there's you. There's the visitor. And I think that's kind of part of the DNA. It's designed to transform the visitor from a spectator into a participant. It's in there and it gets you in deep.
There's definitely something amazing happening here, something that I think we can all learn a lesson from. I know our customers at SHI are all hoping to figure out how to not just keep up, but also to push forward into making things better for our customers, ourselves, and the future of our in-person, digital, and hybrid experiences.
These are these incredibly important moments in our human development. We're all midwives to this process and human beings are transforming, and most of us are really unsure and scared about the future and how we fit into it, and every day there's some new paradigm that's being toppled and a whole new thing that's coming in. "How do you fit into that conversation?" I think is one of the things that-- I wouldn't say it's the main directive of AREA15, but I've always held it quite close to my heart that it be a place where people can experience technology but surrounded by enough of a narrative and enough of a comforting experience that they don't think of it as change.
[pensive music] Luckily, I get to go right to the source to find out more about this enchanting tech playground. Michael Beneville is the Chief Creative Officer of AREA15, as well as the Founder and CEO of Beneville Studios. He's the perfect person to walk us through what AREA15 is, how it came to be, and what they're achieving out there. Michael, thank you for joining us on Innovation Heroes today.
Pleasure to be here with you, Ed.
Where are you joining us from today?
Today I am joining you from Venice Beach, California, but my life has sort of spread across the country.
That is fantastic. What an interesting place, and very jealous, and thanks again for joining us today.
It's a pleasure.
This seems like a big ask, especially for a podcast which is audio-based, so I'm gonna ask you to describe something that is extremely visual, but since there's so much happening at AREA15, what's your elevator pitch for what AREA15 is for listeners who don't already know?
That is a big ask, and I'm asked it all the time. [Ed laughs] AREA15 is a bunker of mind-bogglingly, mind-bending experiences.
I went down a YouTube wormhole a little bit. The best one that I found said "AREA15, coolest/weirdest place in Las Vegas." How do you feel about that assessment?
I feel great about it. [Ed laughs] That is precisely, really, I think what we set out to achieve. You know, we had a tremendous challenge which is: what do you offer a city that already has everything, and has done it so well? And so, "cool" and "weird" was really what we thought [chuckling] we should deliver.
One of the thoughts that came to my mind was that, basically, the entire city, practically, is built on visual stimuli, like, you know, right down to the carpets of the casinos that are so bad that they force your eyes to look back up again. You know, as a designer and as somebody who had to pull this together as Chief Creative Officer, is doing this in a city that is so visually oriented, is that intimidating or do you embrace that, or is it a little bit of both?
Incredibly excited to have had the opportunity, or to have the opportunity, to add something to the landscape of Las Vegas, and we took the challenge really seriously because we felt that everyone had really done all of it before, and done it really, really well, so what could we add that would be different? And that's where we stumbled on a place that we felt would be welcoming to a psychographic - not even a demographic - but a psychographic of people who are looking for a deeper connection to a place, an alternative, maybe a kind of a counterculture piece of it, something that resonates with all that. You know, me, kind of like a geek raised on Star Wars, and playing Dungeons & Dragons and all of that kind of thing, but also grew up and likes to go to, you know, amazing Burning Man and things like that. So, you know, what would you create that would resonate with that person? And throw a big, wide, open, inclusive net so that everybody felt welcome, and we weren't building something that had a barrier to entry, but we were building it for people who would wanna discover something and would be willing to cross Route 15. You know, we're only seven, eight minutes from the center of the strip, but that is a huge barrier. Just getting somebody out of their hotel room is a huge barrier, so we needed to build something that would capture the imagination and actually make you want to make that journey. And so that's where I think, you know, how was I intimidated by the design and everything that is Las Vegas? And I think, you know, any artist, any creator, any designer should always be humbled by what has come before and yet have the confidence to contribute to it and design something that is resonant. But we were never gonna win in Las Vegas by outspending the strip. That would be a fool's goal. [gentle electronic music] There's no outspending it. And so, what we had to do was what my dear friend and mentor Bob Pittman says is, "You outperform the competition using creativity instead of dollars," and I think that we've achieved that. [gentle electronic music continues]
What's the mission that drives AREA15? And what was the inspiration behind you wanting to create this sort of experiential tech space?
The mission that drives AREA15 now is, as I said before, I think it is genuinely about giving the guests the opportunity to transform from a visitor and a spectator into a participant. How we achieve that, I think that has a great deal to do with technology. It also has a great deal to do with the ancient archetypes of just storytelling, [chuckles] the things that sort of pull you in. And I always think technology wants to go hand in hand with what we know about the past, because buried in our past are the ways that we respond to things, and why we want, and why we need, and how we use tools, and how they resonate with us, and how they move us. So when we're mindful of those two things, when we can, you know, take the ancient lore, [chuckles] if you will, and combine it with the new technology or, you know, the archetypes of the past with the technology of the present, that, I think, gives us something that's really vibrant and meaningful for this day and age. The mission of AREA15 at the beginning was to get people to come. We needed them to take a leap of faith, cross the highway into something they didn't know or understand, and we needed to achieve it in a really strategic way, and so, at the beginning, you know, "AREA15 does not exist" was our motto and we built this monolithic black, you know, bunker on the side of the highway with this call it, you know, aircraft-carrier writing almost on the side of it, and that was all by design and by choice. I sort of think of Kubrick and his monolith in 2001, and how, in my mind, he's describing the outside of a universe there. How would you describe the outside of the universe? You go into it, it's infinite, but on the outside, what does it look like? And so, that's what AREA15, the building, architecturally, why I wanted to make it that way, and the reason is, is that it's a counterpoint to what is the glitz and blitz of the strip. And so those two things, I think, can riff off of each other. It can be this tent that houses and leverages the experience economy, but it also allows for tech, I think, to be experienced in a way where the user and the visitor, their heart is more open to the exploration of tech, and these are, in some cases, the first time that a person will have ever achieved or experienced a VR headset or an untethered VR headset or an untethered VR headset paired with, you know, an object that's going to, you know, move with them.
I think I do have a feel for what you're saying because, as you were speaking, you were talking about being, you know, within the art form, whereas if you're in a museum, there's, you know, maybe there's a painting hanging on the wall, and you're standing here and it's standing there, but then when you're at a concert hall, the music is all around you, right? So you're trying to get both of those feelings. You're hosting someone within the art space itself, right? And therefore, they're literally entering your world as an artist, if you will. You're making me recall Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park when they jump out of the jeep, because he's all into chaos theory and he's like, "See? No one could have predicted the other two doctors would have jumped out of the jeep right now." [laughs] Your installation's totally embracing that because you don't really know what people are-- I mean, you can suspect what people are gonna do when they get in there, but you don't really know, right?
No, you don't. But by the age of 51, you anticipate. I have the good fortune of working with my team to be a dreamer and a creator, and I get to see into worlds that don't exist, and I get to, literally, just sketch them out on the back of a piece of paper, and then suddenly-- not suddenly-- with the collaborative effort of tremendous numbers of people and all sorts of-- you know, it's a real team effort. But then, you're standing there, and this thing that was an idea, that became a drawing, that became a file, that became this, that went through all the processes that it takes to actually bring a project like that to life, is open, and now we've had some 2 million people go through it in just the first year and month or so. It's a wonderful exercise because when you do have the gift of actually, just the joy of being able to imagine something and then actually have the opportunity to see it built, you get to test all of these predictions out in your head, and then you see, do people actually gravitate towards it? What do they stick with? And it's amazing. I mean, it's fantastic for me that the arrival to AREA15, which has a sort of a forced perspective, and you're in the bright light, and then you pass through this tunnel, through this huge, you know, A which is on the outside of the bunker, and your eyes are adjusting to the light and the doors open, and then boom. Right in front of you is this unbelievable projection mapped skull. You know, five projectors make it happen. It's 16, 17 feet tall, and to a person, everybody stops and says, "Wow," and they, of course, take out their phone and take a picture of it, and that's exactly what you thought they would do. That's what you want. But then, of course, there are all the things that you don't think they'll do - most good - and every once in a while you learn something. It's always the dirt paths across the grass that are actually more interesting than the ones people imagine, you know, the students will take as they cross the quad, right? And the designer wants-- the artist, I think, wants to anticipate those and leave room for them, and I think that's another way in which each visitor to AREA15 actually colors the experience and shapes it. So I learned a great deal just by sitting on the mezz level and staring down, and do it all the time, all the time, and usually with a big smile on my face. [chuckles]
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[gentle music] Clearly, Michael has an amazing mind to have helped birth such an innovative space, but like any great leader, he's also got an amazing team to help turn his vision into reality, so I wanted to help get some advice for anyone else who needs to build a top-notch creative and technical team. [gentle music continues] Creating this, obviously, you know, required an incredible amount of creativity, which can be exhausting, quite frankly, after a while, but sticking with the Vegas theme, you know, and, kind of, in Ocean's Eleven when they list out all the people they're gonna need to pull this off, right? "We're gonna need a lifter," the pickpocket or whatever. I don't even know what the names of these things were. But how did you... You know, knowing that that amount of creativity was gonna be needed, how did you assemble the team of artists and innovators, you know, in order to get this done? Like, a lot of people who are listening have to assemble, you know, either an innovative team, or maybe a creative team. You know, what were your first thoughts in terms of like, "Who am I gonna need to get this done?"
This is a tour de force that involves partners and tenants and all sorts of other groups that have been brought in and, very much, you know, really at the heart and center of it is Winston Fisher and Fisher Brothers who own the land, are the real estate developers, and really took a huge risk which, at the time, I think probably seemed like lunacy to a lot of the people around him. You know, we presented Winston with three very, very good ideas, and to his credit, he went with the craziest one, and not only did he go with it, you know, we have an incredible business and creative partnership, as well. I mean, it's just nonstop. There's-- you know, it's texts in the middle of the night, and, "Have you seen this?" and all that, and we've grown--you know, the team has grown now to many, many hundreds of people, all seekers, all on a path to make something truly different. So, at its heart, it is really relationship-based. People I've known, worked with, that we've worked with coming together at different points, once the vision was articulated, then adding, you know, more and more of those experts into different places and fields. To say that we began by imagining it exactly as it is today would be a total-- you know, it would be very misleading. It was at a much smaller scale. Well, actually, it was at a huge scale at first. I said, "Hey, let's crash a spaceship into all the land, but because we can't afford to build an ark spaceship, we'll just build the remnant parts, you know, that were leftover. Like, you know, so we won't have to build the whole ship. We can build, you know, the-- call it the holodeck, and the aquarium, and all those things, and then we'll put hazmat shelters and everything around it," and Winston just said, "That's amazing! It's gonna cost $2 billion. We're not doing that out of the gate." So that AREA15 began as a two-weekend party, and then it turned into a $3 million, $4 million building, as you don't know what it should be, and it's, you know, obviously, many times bigger than that. A team is formed by the people that you know, and that's where it starts. A team is accelerated by adding to it all of the things that you don't know. In the case of our partnership with Winston Fisher and Fisher Brothers, that's been extraordinary because, you know, I've said it to Winston a lot of times, "The Sistine Chapel is incredible, but it's a dance between Michelangelo and the Pope, and you can't separate those two. There wouldn't be one without the other," and so I think the creativity of commerce is an incredibly important part of bringing something like this sort of creativity to life. If you're not partnered with, or dancing with somebody who really understands the bottom line, sees the world creatively in black and white, as well as red, and then the full spectrum of color, [chuckles] like, you know, appreciates all of that... It's an artist mistake, I think, to assume that all the folks around them, that are the business side of it, don't know anything about creativity or bringing it to life.
Yeah. There's a lot of different ways to be creative and you need pretty much all of those on your extended team. Obviously, you get to work with a lot of, you know, innovative tech, both at AREA15 and some of the other projects you're involved with. So, Michael, what do you predict is gonna be the most transformative in the years to come, you know, things that other people in companies should be paying more attention to now?
I think that the metaverse and this digital world that we've opened up... You know, humanity has opened up a fissure in the universe, and now we're pouring in, and we have been for quite some time. We already have been living in a metaverse. It's just that the devices and the tools by which we enter it, and through which we see it, aren't yet so seamless that they transport us, right? We're still kind of locked somewhere around the age of a television that's got a screen that's about, you know, 10 inches wide, and there's-- I don't know, you know, something playing on it that's not as good at listening to the radio. That's relatively where we are in terms of what's to come, and so I'm incredibly excited about that, and I'm, of course, as concerned as anybody would be, but that's why I think it's a rallying call for designers and creators and artists and engineers to think of a human-centric metaverse, and to think of how it actually dovetails and accentuates the beauty of our own world, and maybe takes some of the non-beautiful things of our world and makes them more beautiful. I liken it-- you know, I've said in the past, I liken it to wallpaper, back-- and the invention of wallpaper made murals possible for industrialists, and for, ultimately, anyone who could, you know, buy some wallpaper. That's what augmented reality and these layers are opening up around us, and it's surrounding us already. It's just that people haven't seen it, and they don't know how much it's surrounding them already. [gentle electronic music] We already live in a metaverse. It's called the World Wide Web. We just-- you know, we're entering into the point now where we can truly navigate it, and I'm deeply involved in a company, in a group that is working on precisely that, and that's been a really fascinating, fascinating project. [gentle electronic music continues]
In terms of this experiential tech, so, you know, when movies came out, they said, "Well, that's gonna be the end of stage shows," right? And then, when the VCR came out, said, "Well, that's gonna be the end of movies," right? And then VR came out and the home entertainment experience is clearly nothing like you and I experienced as a kid. But, in the post-COVID age, like, how important is it that this is something that you have to go someplace and experience, you know, in terms of like, AREA15? Do you... How much of a factor do you think that that plays in that it's not something that's attainable just through, you know, the ever-improving technology that's available to us, you know, in the home? [gentle electronic music continues]
Well, if you look at the portfolio of interests and creations that I'm working on, I think that the answer is I believe completely in all of it. I don't think one effectively works without the other, which isn't to say that humanity couldn't find some way to survive in The Matrix, and that we might be able to upload ourselves into it, but would our lives actually be better, you know? And, you know, maybe the generations to come will think very differently about it, but for me, my hedge is that it's the two, combined, with a really artful portal in between that is so important, that I agree completely with you that no new technology wipes out the old technology. It just adds another tool to the kit, right? And then, it becomes what the use case is. How do I wanna engage with this? Do I need it? I mean, I use my phone all day long. I've got Oculus goggles I use. I text, I FaceTime. You know, all these different things are happening, but I still read a book, and I like a magazine by the pool, 'cause it doesn't get wet and I can actually read it in the sun. You know, they're all elegant solutions for different ways of getting through life. We should be generous and bountiful enough, I think, to be able to live with the full spectrum of them and to use them as is our pleasure, right? Or as is our need. You know, we're right on the cusp of, "Do I actually really need or want this?" Well, the last two years, for a lot of people - not for everybody, but for those who were solvent enough or had access enough to computers and things - it wasn't that life ended. It just profoundly changed. "Do I still want human interaction?" Absolutely. "Does it bug me sometimes to get on a plane and go all the way across the country for a two-hour meeting that I could have done pretty effectively in a meeting space?" Yeah. 100%. And I think that that's why the projects that I'm working on right now with Vatom SpatialWeb and all these things are these platform tools that allow you to build your own metaverse in a platform that's vertically integrated with all of the digital objects and NFTs and things that you might want or need, and that it's human-centric. It's actually-- you know, it's a plugin. We could create an avatar, of course. We can have you be a giant bunny rabbit or a bat, but we're starting off with video discs that move around complex environments because that actually allows me to make eye contact with a human being, and the metaverse is not a game. The metaverse is another place to live, so we will play games in it, but it's a great deal more than that, and I think it then needs to have, I don't know, a social code, or a heart, or a center that allows us to navigate it as Human beings with a capital H. And I stand on the shoulders of really, really wise, you know, folks who have schooled me over the last six, seven years in this kind of thinking, and I genuinely appreciate the approach that we're all taking to it, or some of us are. You know, this shouldn't be something that strips your humanity out and sells you off [chuckling] for chum down the road. This is a moment in time where, if, idealistically, if this could all be handled correctly, the human being would be at the control, and at the heart, and at the center of their life and their well-being, with the ability to create, and conduct business, and move, and interact and all of those things, and you own you, you know? That would be the grand ideal.
Absolutely. You mentioned the movie The Matrix really quickly there, and I always liked, there's a little part in that first movie where they just allude to the first version of The Matrix didn't work because nobody believed it, right? And you kind of touched on that a little bit right there, and I always thought that that little five-second clip made that movie so much more believable and better to me, because it's like, "Yeah, we tried it once before and it didn't work because it wouldn't-- they didn't buy the human aspect of it," you know? And I think a little bit of that is what you were talking about there, like how we desire to be, you know, generally with others. Yeah, and you have to get that right.
Yeah, and one doesn't replace the other. You know, it's not... I don't think we should fear that human beings are gonna put on their Oculus headsets and disappear. I mean, it's just not... I mean, I've had every headset that came out. I have not disappeared. [laughs] And, in fact, I need the form factor to get a lot better before I spend any amount of time in there, so these things are all evolving and I think it's the responsibility of all of us to make them human-centric, useful to society.
I can't let you go until I ask one more question, and you mentioned Dungeons & Dragons at the beginning of our conversation. What was your favorite character that you ever owned when you were-- back as a kid?
You know, I always kind of wanted to be the Paladin and all of that, but there were other guys in the group who just were the Paladin so, you know, I just, yeah. [laughs] And it isn't really me. I always like-- I liked being an elf. I liked being an archer. I liked having a little, you know, being able to lift a pocket or two [Ed laughs] but, you know, all for good. [laughs] So that's kind of where I landed, but a tall elf. [Ed laughs] A tall, striking elf.
That's how I got over the Paladin piece of it. But I'll tell you, I really learned so much from playing those games and connecting with my friends late into the night, and so much of the vocabulary that's in my head and the things I think about. And, I look at AREA15 and it's the story of a couple of dorks growing up and building the place that they wanted to go to when they were kids, and I used to go to the mall and there was a little gaming shop, and then the rest of it was crap. Like, I couldn't care less about it all. And now, we got to flip it on its head, and Winston and the team have just been able to create the mall for me, you know? [laughs] I think I learned just so much by playing those games, and I wonder now whether, you know, I know there's a bit of a renaissance in-- a lot of a renaissance in it-- I wonder whether the next generation gets to engage in that part of their mind as much. It's so much more visual, and good god, it's everything I always wanted when we were kids, right? And then, there it is. But there was something really special about having it all be theater of the mind that really formed me, and I think it allowed me to-- I think it allowed me, honestly, to say, as I said before, that to have the ability to see worlds that don't yet exist and to bring them to life. That has served me really, really, really well. [gentle music]
Yes, it has. Michael Beneville, Chief Creative Officer at AREA15, I wanna just thank you for your time today and I really enjoyed our conversation. Thanks so much.
Ed, it was such a pleasure. [gentle music continues]
AREA15 is, for sure, on my travel list for the next time I'm out visiting good old Las Vegas, but I'm also looking forward to the amazing digital capabilities that people like Michael can see just over the horizon, too. Experiential tech is on the rise, and I totally believe in Michael's vision of what the digital world will soon look and feel like. Having creative leaders like him at the helm makes our wildest fantasies of the future of tech seem not just possible, but also close at hand. With projects like AREA15 and all the other astonishing things Michael and his teams are working on, I can't wait to see what the future holds for us all. [gentle music continues] [Innovation Heroes theme music] Thanks for listening to this episode of Innovation Heroes. Next time on the podcast, I'll be speaking with Julian Circo, Co-Founder of Hyfe, the world's most sophisticated acoustic AI app. Powered by deep neural networks, Hyfe runs on any smartphone to identify coughs and other symptoms in real time. In other words, it has the potential to completely change the modern healthcare system as we know it. So tune in in two weeks. You won't wanna miss it. [Innovation Heroes theme music continues] If you enjoyed this episode, then consider being our hero. Smash that like and subscribe button to Innovation Heroes, wherever you get your podcasts. Innovation Heroes is a Pilgrim Content production in collaboration with SHI. Our producers are Tobin Dalrymple and Jessica Schmidt, with production assistance from Carmi Levy, Ronny Latimore, Jane Norman, Amanda Scheffer-Cavanagh, and Ryan Wetter. I'm your host, Ed McNamara, and I'll be back with another amazing story in two weeks.
This episode of Innovation Heroes was brought to you by the new SHI. Visit shi.com/newlight to learn more.