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5 Minutes with… Lee Schuneman

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Studio Head at Microsoft’s Lift London on why 3D creation should be for everyone, the power of HoloLens and how he ended up working with gaming legend Miyamoto

5 Minutes with… Lee Schuneman
If you want to get a feel for how people will create and collaborate in the future, Lee Schuneman is a good person to start with. He’s Studio Head at Lift London, a rather unique group of people at Microsoft, whose job it is to figure out how people will use technology – and Microsoft’s own services and devices – and create experiences and apps and content around that. His belief is that creativity is going to be vital for all businesses – not just those in the ‘creative industries’ – and so Lift is all about making tools and experiences that help them achieve that.

Case in point, the recently-revealed Paint 3D, which was born from Lift London’s talented team of engineers, developers and designers. It’s a re-born version of MS Paint that really will make 3D creativity accessible to everyone – it’s been 18 months in the making and will be an intuitive first step into the world of 3D for a mass audience. This 3D creativity and computing also feeds into Microsoft’s developments with Holographic computing, and indeed the HoloLens. 

It’s all very exciting stuff, but the geek out doesn’t end there. Lee, you see, has an amazing background in videogames, getting his big break with legendary games company Rare, where he designed Diddy Kong Racing and got the chance to work at Nintendo HQ, picking up two prestigious Baftas along the way. And all that experience has put him in the ideal place right now as technology, creativity and interactivity move ever and ever closer. 

LBB's Laura Swinton caught up with him to find out more..

LBB> What’s the focus for Lift London at the moment?

LS> The other week we announced Microsoft’s new concept of 3D for Everyone and introduced the Surface Studio device, as well as Paint 3D, which is MS Paint for the next generation. Paint 3D was all developed here out of the studio. We’ve been leading the 3D for the Everyone programme for a while with our teams in Seattle and Vancouver. The Paint 3D piece, specifically, is designed and built out of London. 

The whole purpose of Lift is to lean into three particular trends. One is that we believe that 3D computing is going to be a thing that everyone will use; it’s at this cusp where it’s going to develop into something really cool and unique. 

We also spend a lot of time thinking about how the workforce is changing, particularly with gen Z and millennials coming into work. They’re being sensible and refusing to treat work like it has been for the past 60 years. So we spend a lot of time working with that audience to figure that out. 

And the next trend is a bit buzzwordy, but it’s the idea that creativity is the new productivity. We’re seeing it through a lot of the work we do through HoloLens. A lot of businesses are recognising the need for creativity at all levels. For us in the creative industries that’s part of our DNA but we’re a small set of industries versus everyone else. 

LBB> With the launch of Surface Studio, Microsoft has made a concerted effort to court professional creatives and the new Windows 10 update is even called 'The Creators' Update'. It seems to be really gaining traction - why are creatives so important to get on board?

LS> From a top-down level it’s not for me to talk about it from a Microsoft strategy level, but my background is in video games. I switched out of gaming two years ago and now I’m creating 3D apps. Paint is used by 120 million people a month. When you start realising the impact you can have at that sort of scale… it’s been amazing. The reason we’ve been bringing this gaming-centric creativity process to bear on all the different apps and services we’re building here is that there’s a recognition that there’s an audience coming through now that wants to be creative all the time and they’re very entrepreneurial and driven to do things themselves. I think it’s on us to build tools that enable that creativity.

LBB> So that gaming mindset offers so much in terms of storytelling and immersion and interactivity but (parts) of the ad and production industry has been slow to get its head around the potential - what’s the key for people who are used to linear storytelling making the most of that?

LS> Gamers have grown up with a direct relationship with a computer device and they have learned how to have storytelling done in a very unique, gaming-centric way. Gaming is the art form that combines all the other artforms but then adds that level of interactivity that creates a much more personal story. Really you’re guiding yourself through that.

From an advertising perspective, that’s really powerful to leverage. 

I’ll loop back to why we believe in 3D for Everyone; games are expensive to make and they’re time consuming to make and they require a lot of unique skills that have been constrained somewhat within that particular world. We found that when we start with HoloLens, there are not many people who know how to leverage that apart from games companies and CGI companies. And that’s created a lot of opportunities for people. We want to take it to the next level and simplify the whole act of 3D creation. 
Minecraft has been part of that – if you’re nine or 10 years old you’re learning to think in 3D and create in 3D. It’s on us to plant those seeds that will pay dividends in the next few years and that will allow advertisers to start leveraging it because we’re making it much easier to create and much easier to have 3D part of every decision that someone makes.

LBB> Although everyone’s been getting all excited about VR over the last couple of years, the potential of HoloLens and the promise of mixed reality feels a lot more powerful - when do you think we’ll see MR and HoloLens filter into the mainstream?

LS> I wouldn’t say we’re not talking about it in the same way, but it’s such a futuristic product in many respects that I think a lot of people don’t believe it. 

For me it is part of the journey that we’re going on. Once you start bringing this 3D digital layer into the physical world, it really transforms how you think about interacting with it. It’s more natural because you’re not blocking things off. We can look each other in the eyes, have a conversation and still see lots of cool 3D shapes. I think it’s just a very different, more personal, mobile-centric vision versus VR which is immersive in its own way and maybe more suited to other experiences. They’re both going to exist, for quite a while, and they’re both going to create their own art forms that come out of it. It’s exciting to explore them both, and we’re very early in that 3D computing path.

LBB> And talking about ‘the future’, right now it feels like the rate of change is accelerating and disruption is coming from everywhere - when you’re running a business like Lift, when you’re working on things which have been in development for a long time, how do you surf that change?

LS> I think it comes back to that commitment of vision. Back when I was making games, sometimes it would take two or three years and that vision you started with was the one that you followed through on. 

Things are much faster now and we keep an eye on everything, but with everything we showed at the launch, especially with the 3D for Everyone, was the vision that we came up with 18 months to two years ago. The magic of our industry is that many of these ideas happen all the time, but the important thing is really about releasing it at a moment where it captures everyone else’s imagination. We might have released something a year ago when VR hadn’t connected with audiences, so the story wouldn’t have landed well. A lot of tech is about timing, as well as the idea itself. 

But we have a strong belief about what this future could be and our job is to enable and empower other people. That’s what Microsoft is about, empowering people to do more. We plant those seeds and hopefully now people will go and use them in ways that we just couldn’t imagine, and then based on that we can keep iterating and evolving it.

LBB> I’d like to circle back to the thing that you said about the changing nature of work. I think a few creative companies are trying to figure that one out, R/GA has recently been making a big push for the ‘Connected Workplace’. What do you see that workspace as being – is it an office? Is it home?

LS> I think it’s a bit of everything. If we’re going to try and create tools for people to work in a new way, we have to live and breathe it ourselves. For our move to Paddington, we’re applying some of this approach to our own business. 

Our goal is to make the office the focus of collaboration and coming together to share, and we need to have the tools to allow us to be as flexible as possible. We’ve designed the work space so that there are different environments based on what you want to do that day, whether that’s a big open collaborative space or a dark quiet lounge where you can go and think without being distracted. The office becomes a bit of a honeypot really – it’s a fascinating and interesting place to come.

LBB> In terms of the mix of skills and talent you have here at Lift, what’s the set up like? I’ve just discovered you’ve got a film crew and a grading suite for your internal videos, for example.

LS> We’re an interesting group. We are Microsoft, but we call ourselves Lift London as a brand and a statement as it helps with our recruitment. It means that we get to be both Lift London and Microsoft. We’re fully accountable to deliver commercial success, so while we do research it has to be research that becomes real. We’re not a pure research team – I manage a P&L and I’m accountable for that. If it’s games it’s all about revenue, right now it’s all about Windows and Paint 3D and how we engage people to create in 3D and think in 3D and so on. 

That means from a skill set perspective it’s effectively a group of people that’s running our own business. Number one, we’re a software company so we have a lot of software engineers. We have a big design ethos which we brought from games; our design team is as big as our software team, which is very unusual for a software business. Design spans everything from the normal UI, UX to print specialists, we’ve got a lot of 3D specialists for character creation and animation, concept artists. And then, because we work with lots of hardware as well, we have a lot of hardware specialists, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers - that new blend of mechatronics. A mechatronic is essentially somebody who can do mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and software engineering. We hired some great folks from the Royal College of Arts on the Product Innovation masters who can do a lot of that. 

A lot of what we do touches hardware, in some form or another, either inventing hardware ourselves or partnering with other groups within Microsoft. That could be building software for different Surface devices or HoloLens. And then of course, because we need to tell our own stories, whether that’s internally with the rest of Microsoft or externally, we have our own film production team. It’s literally a full end-to-end set of folks, which makes it really fun.

LBB> Do you collaborate much with outside partners like design studios or creative production?

LS> We work with lots of different vendors, in terms of software companies that partner with us. We’ve been working with Framestore on a few different things connected with the HoloLens work. We’re tied into the bigger ecosystem of great talent across London and the rest of the world.

LBB> Are there other studios like this across Microsoft in other cities, or is Lift London unique within the organisation?

LS> We’re pretty unique. We are part of a whole 3D for Everyone programme – there’s about 300 of us around the world and there’s a similar team in Vancouver and another team in Seattle as well, but we’re kind of unique in that our purpose here in London is to leverage what the city has to offer: an incredible pool of talent. We’re very mindful that we want to build things end-to-end because that’s what people are really motivated by. If you come to Lift, you get to do cool and innovative things, but you get to do it at a huge scale. That’s the magic of something like Paint 3D – it’s not often you get to make something that touches that many people.

LBB> I wanted to go back a bit and talk about your background. You got your first job in gaming by sending some ideas out to games companies. But I’m wondering what really motivated you to do that in the first place?

LS> I got creatively inspired when my dad bought me a Super 8 camera when I was 10 years old. This would have been in 1980, so I was making little animated films and crappy little things with my friends where we were playing as zombies. So that was the spark of creativity. I got into hip hop music in my mid-teens, so I had a drum machine and decks and all that sort of thing, so all the time I was making stuff. 

I was meant to go to art school to make films but my grades were useless and I didn’t get in. I left school at 16, worked in a fruit shop, pub, all those sort of terrible jobs you end up doing at some point in your life. I had two kids way too young and weirdly, through some sort of employment training scheme, I ended up working for a swimming pool company in South Wales, where I’m from. 

The guy who ran it, Howard Bailey, was my first mentor. It’s been a good lesson about mentoring. He took me under his wing; this was in the early '90s, and even though he ran this traditional swimming pool company, bashing metal, he wanted to get involved in computers. So this is when Netscape was first happening. I was doing all his photography, designing all his brochures and doing a bit of sales. I learned a little bit of a craft… 

… at the same time I had been playing video games since I was a kid. I was a big Nintendo fanboy. I was in South Wales with two kids, working overtime, doing what I could to get by and I thought… I wanted to do something I could follow with some passion.

I wrote three video games ideas down on A4 paper, sent them off to a few different companies. Some of them interviewed me, including Rare, the company that hired me. They’d just had a game come out, Donkey Kong Country. I went in and said, "You’re game is great but here’s how it could be better.” And they hired me as a games designer. So one day I’m in Wales making swimming pools, the next I’m making video games at Rare, which had just made one of the biggest video games in the world!
The next people who helped me in my career were the founders Chris and Tim Stamper. They brought together this rag tag group of people with no experience and said ‘go and make a game’. And in a year I’d made my first game, Diddy Kong Racing. There were a team of 20 of us in a barn in the middle of the countryside, and it sold 5 million copies. And your life changes – it’s like releasing a hit single. 

It was an amazing set of circumstances and a lot of luck – and the hard part has been, for the past 20 years, maintaining that and doing it again and again. That’s where I’ve been lucky enough to work with great people and have multiple successes, which is not the norm. 

LBB> For young people nowadays there are a lot more tools out there for them to experiment with if they’re interested in getting into gaming or creative technology, but there’s so much more competition and a lot more emphasis on paper qualifications. Do you think it’s easier for young people getting their foot in the door now, or harder?

LS> It’s a tricky one. Qualifications are important and if I had the chance to go back and do it again, I would have loved to go and do what I originally wanted to do… but at the same time it’s more about a person’s willingness to go off and have an impact. How they went about getting that skill is not as important; if a qualification got you there, great, if you’ve gone and learned it on your own through sheer hard work, great. But if you’re able to show that you’ve gained some skills, done something interesting with them and you’ve got the willingness to really see it through, then that’s great. You know how hard it is, in any creative industry, if you don’t have that bloody-mindedness and determination then nothing will happen.

You’ve got to really believe in your vision because everybody has an opinion that’s different to yours. It’s having that focus to go and do it. That desire to have an impact, and if that shines through, all that other stuff is less important.

LBB> So when you were younger, you were a bit of a Nintendo nut… favourite games?

LS> Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo was the game that I played most in my early twenties. Manic Miner was the game that really got me inspired when I was a kid and I was designing levels.

I got to work with Miyamoto, which was really fun. We were doing Star Fox Adventures and we went to Nintendo’s headquarters in Japan for a while. I got to sit in a room with Miyamoto for days on end designing stuff. When you’re that age, you’re probably a bit confident… or arrogant I guess, and you don’t always realise how big these moments are until you reflect back on them later. Anything he’s done and still does has a massive impact on me. 

What I loved about working with those guys when we made Star Fox was there was a lot of attention to detail with the movement of the character and the feel of it. When a character ran around in a circle, it would have that little bit of lean; when it climbed up the steps it had to have just the right amount of weight to it. It just felt like you were playing with a toy. We spent months on that control. And once that was done, they left us alone to figure out the rules of the game and the story. Because once you’ve got that core right, everything else just works.

That has followed me through into everything we do. If you get that core creation and manipulation simple and easy and feeling right, everything else is simple and easy. 

LBB> In a way, it’s a bit like peering behind the curtain… having been involved in the inner workings of games creation and now working with really exciting and futuristic technology like HoloLens, do you still have a sense of wonder about the experience?

LS> Absolutely, all the time. I first saw HoloLens four and a half years ago and the fun and the challenge of our job is that because we are developing technology so early, we get our ‘wow moment’ before everyone else. The hard part is creating an experience so that everybody else can experience that ‘wow moment’ too. What a lot of my career has been based around is taking hardware and software and creating an experience that connects with a mass audience – most of my games have that in mind. I still love it, especially when you can see people’s reactions.
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LBB Editorial, Tue, 08 Nov 2016 18:18:54 GMT