In my latest episode of Metaverse, I spoke with Nathan Phillips, co-founder and director of concept design at “Technology, Humans And Taste,” or THAT. As co-founder of THAT, Nathan has led the development of proprietary collaborative methodology, which invites diverse and unfamiliar collaborators to co-create innovative concepts for any medium, leveraging AI to supercharge any idea. Beginning his career as an interactive artist, he has held a variety of roles, from creating interactive experiences for Broadway legends in Vegas to showing interactive films at Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival. Nathan has spent the last decade using his experience as an artist to collaborate with brands such as MGM, Google, Sotheby’s and Condè Nast to create campaigns designed to create desire in humans and give people their own stories to tell.
As an improvisationalist, Nathan described how his creative upbringing in this tradition inspired his present work. He’s especially invested in storytelling that lives in the present moment and can grow and change with different choices. The improvisational performance Nathan grew up on was performed in black box theatres, creating entire worlds from literally nothing using only the performer’s imagination and the spirit of “yes and” – where choices are made, affirmed, and then built upon. THAT takes the improv spirit into the 21st century, drawing on Nathan’s desire to create worlds or narratives in “big, empty black boxes, where anything could happen” allowing people to interact, make choices that influence the story, and watch it unfold with them as active participants. As opposed to the entertainment of the past, where the audience passively receives a story start to finish in a darkened room, Nathan sees VR and AR as unlocking new potential for active involvement: where our input as an audience will shape and influence the shape of the art we’re consuming.
We discussed his work on the Van Gogh immersive piece as an example of the “yes and” spirit of improvisation brought to life through generative art. One feature of the immersive display allowed people to “write back” to Vincent, who in his lifetime never received affirmation of his vision as an artist. Pulling from the corpus of Vincent’s own correspondence with some small additions for the present day, Nathan’s team created an AI that could reply to people’s messages, allowing them to further engage.
As an artist, Nathan was full of exciting, optimistic visions for how the metaverse could nurture creativity and collaboration – if leveraged in the right way. He sees us as moving towards a world where we seamlessly move between R (real-life reality), AR, and VR, and has been working on projects to bring conversations about digital behaviours into our daily life. Nathan predicts we will all need to become performers in the metaverse, learning how to perform our avatars in the virtual space the way you’d learn to communicate whilst wearing a mask on Halloween.
To take the next giant leap forward into the Metaverse, Nathan believes we need the right tools – which THAT is working on launching presently. Right now, we are still relying on old linear ways of thinking, but writing something in a list for a 3D world doesn’t make sense. The new tools Nathan is creating with THAT will allow people to collaborate and explore creative spaces in a non-linear way, where you are actually surrounded by ideas. Nathan likens this new space in the metaverse as stumbling across ideas “in the street.” A virtual space where we can feel free to look around and get inspired allows the discovery of new, unexpected, unanticipated ideas. This is a sharp contrast to the current virtual world, in which we are barraged by things the algorithm predicts you’ll like and consume. Time and again, Nathan reinforces the idea of openness, emphasising the importance of agency, rather than bullying a message or choice on people.
In looking towards the future, Nathan notes the metaverse has huge potential as a liberative space. Pointing to Afrofuturism, Nathan notes that it could be used to empower and lift up voices that before now have largely been left unheard or underrepresented. However, this needs to be a conscious choice in its development, and with giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon leading the charge, Nathan fears we are instead heading for a “shoppable environment of absolute commerce.” In his ideal future, Nathan’s metaverse would be centered on “wish fulfillment,” allowing us to “create things that we don’t yet have as opposed to being encumbered by the technologies that are around us.” In this utopia, we’d swap Google calendar alerts and back-to-back Zoom conferences for time-traveling adventures and the ability to soar through the air. This is a vision for the future I think we could all get behind!
Having grown up on the gospel of “yes and,” Nathan is a natural optimist, who is always seeking ways to improve and build on innovation so we can move towards the next best thing together. As such, his creative, inclusive takes on the metaverse’s potential were especially inspiring. To learn more about Nathan’s current and future work, you can listen to our full conversation here.