What comes around ....…
Core business: Dynamic digital displays including 360° inflatable and acrylic spheres
Employees: 8 full-time, plus regular sub-contractors
Turnover: £1 million in 2010–11
Clients: Symantec, NASA, MET Office, BBC, Coldplay, OPEC, Grolsh, IBM, Optos, Boeing, Virgin Money, Amway
What comes around...
When the new National Museum of Scotland opened in July, one of its most innovative exhibits was a 2-metre digital sphere displaying geology-focused content stories, developed by a company whose office is only a few hundred metres away from the revamped museum. This year, a similar 1.8-metre-diameter sphere has also been installed in the London Stock Exchange, while smaller 90cm spheres, also permanent exhibits made of acrylic, have gone on show at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Perth. With other clients ranging from the Wagner Fest and musical legends such as Coldplay, who used its spherical displays – PufferSpheres – for special effects on a record-breaking world tour, to high-tech companies such as IBM, O2, Symantec and Google, Pufferfish is fast establishing a global reputation for its specialist projection solutions.
Pufferfish Ltd emerged from the University of Edinburgh in 2004, when its co-founders Oliver Collier and Will Cavendish (now Technical Director) had an idea for an innovative digital display which would enable them to project images onto a sphere, in sharp focus on every part of the surface. Seven years later, the company has gone through several rounds of investment, including substantial funding from the Braveheart Investment Group, plus further backing from Scottish Enterprise’s Scottish Co-Investment Fund and several private investors, and built up a who's who of clients in countries all over the world, selling and renting solutions for events and permanent exhibits in America and Asia, plus the Middle East and all around Europe.
In 2002, Collier (music & physics) and Cavendish (who studied architecture) had developed a prototype system which responded to MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) sensors, and spent many hours glueing spheres together with solvent before the undergraduate project became a serious business proposal. The Edinburgh Pre-Incubator Scheme (EPIS) gave the business early-stage financial support when it was established in 2004, and early on Collier and Cavendish also won a SMART: Scotland award, matched by Braveheart, which enabled it to fine-tune its technology and develop its marketing strategy.
The technology has progressed out of all recognition since those early days, but the company has also evolved since it entered the business arena, providing a complete package of services, as well as hardware and software solutions. According to sales and marketing manager Ben Allan, the key to success has been the company's “hands-on” approach and its international network of partners, as well as its technology and understanding of content. Its partners come in different shapes and sizes, but many of them have a lot of rental experience – essential when so many clients use Pufferfish displays for one-off events.
Every client means a different challenge, says Allan.One day, he is talking to the Ruhrtriennale (Wagner Fest) in Germany, using PufferSpheres for a production of the opera Tristan & Isolde, and the next it is the BBC, shooting a trailer in Cape Town. The company made its first sale in 2006 and, as the years went by, continued to develop its solution and reduce prices. In financial year 2010 – 11, its gross sales topped £1 million, including 40 PufferSpheres of different dimensions.
The breakthrough made by Pufferfish was to develop special lenses and projection techniques to display images (output from standard projectors made by companies such as Projection Design, Christie and Barco, etc.) onto a spherical surface from sources including a laptop computer or media server, converting (or “spherising”) digital content designed for a flat surface onto a sphere, so every single pixel remains bright and equally focused. The process may seem simple, but Pufferfish is clearly a few steps ahead of its rivals, who have struggled to provide a higher-quality or lower-priced alternative. The principles of the core technology are “essentially the same,” Allan explains, but they have learned a lot along the way not just about projectors and lenses but also the materials and coatings used for spheres, many of which are inflated on site in a matter of minutes, like balloons. The technologies are also open, says Allan, so PufferSpheres can integrate with most other media systems, including specialist devices.
What makes the technology so different, says Allan, is the original design of special “omni-focus” lenses, plastic coatings and novel projection techniques, with images controlled by special software. But another key difference is attention to detail and the flexibility to build solutions matched to client needs – for example, spheres robust enough to meet strict safety standards at the same time as being easy to transport, maintain and install.
For Allan, one of his proudest achievements is when someone comments on one of its systems by saying “that's a Pufferfish,” as if the brandname is already recognised as generic – like Thermos or Hoover. But even though its systems may give Pufferfish the edge in this particular technology, Allan also believes that the service it offers is what makes the critical difference. “We focus on being the company people want to work with,” he explains. “We have an open approach to supplying solutions, but we always want to make sure that everything works.”
Pufferfish has come a long way in the last seven years, but it still keeps in very close contact with the university where it all started, and a new generation of students in the Informatics Department is now using Pufferfish systems to develop innovative interactive displays – as if the spherical idea has come full circle.