Calvium 10th year anniversary: Interview with Jo Reid

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Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Managing Director

Digital Insights

Jo Reid stands in front of a window

14/10/2015 Calvium Ltd, mobile app development agency in Prince Street, Bristol, UK. Portrait: Jo Reid.

It’s amazing to think that ten years have gone by since five people working at Hewlett-Packard’s Research and Development Labs got together to form Calvium. We’ve come a long way in that time and in this interview our Managing Director Jo Reid takes a look back at where we’ve come from, where we are and where we’re going.


What was the driving force behind your decision to set up Calvium?

The driving force behind the decision to set up Calvium was the opportunity to pool our redundancy and build on what we’d been working on for ages, which was a desire to create a platform to help creative people make location-aware mobile experiences better.

We had this vision of wanting to create an easy-to-use platform where people from the creative sector could treat the world as a canvas to paint wonderful experiences that other people could enjoy, whether they be community stories or histories. It’s the early stages of what we now call digital placemaking and it’s a passion of ours to be able to use these emerging technologies to create a physical dimension to digital space.

Is this how AppFurnace came about?

We hoped that we could lower the bar to entry, so that you didn’t have to be a computer scientist to create these kinds of experiences. AppFurnace was the first platform we created for that, and we worked with Historic Royal Palaces, Watershed, and other artists to create its first use.

What we did was try to create a platform built on our work with artists and visionaries. That was our motivation—to make lives easier for people with a vision and a creative spark, to be able to deliver things that worked with where you are, what you wanted to see.

We realised that the platform was really popular for the artists and creatives, but that in reality our hope that anyone could create these experiences without help was not easily achieved.

The other thing was that apps themselves evolved quite differently to the way we thought they were going to. What we were used to was an online world where anybody could put anything out there. The app stores didn’t pan out like that, especially Apple who demanded high-end, high-value, high-design as a bar to entry.

So the idea of community stories, things that kids could make, or things that you could put together quite easily; these just weren’t the kinds of things Apple would accept in the App Store. So the barrier of entry shifted and too did the level of design, the level of ingenuity that what was required to make an app. Our simple do-it-yourself app model just didn’t fit with this new world.

That’s why we pivoted. What we realised was that our decades of experience in this field and our understanding of the area; this was highly valuable. The other realisation was that it’s not just a case of giving somebody an easy to use tool and expecting them to turn into a professional designer.

A crowd of people gather outside, in front of a wooden wall to try the AR Door installation at Battersea Power Station
Battersea Power Station Heritage App event.Photo by Johnny Stephens Photography

What improved after this realisation?

What improved was our ability to recognise that we could help our clients succeed in delivering the apps that they needed using our expertise in mobile application design and system development.

We improved on learning to develop that business focus. We recognised where our value lay and the kind of clients who could really benefit from our skills and afford to pay. This win win situation helped us increase profit and to grow the company as we wished.

So that was what we really improved on—taking the fabulous customer service focus that we had and scaling it for our clients so that we could really fit their needs.

How have you brought this experience to bear on your current clients?

The great thing was that our work with Rolls-Royce and the aerospace sector in general, was a fabulous fit. As soon as we started working with Rolls-Royce, word spread and the number of projects boomed.

We could apply our know how in developing consumer facing platforms such as AppFurnace, alongside our design and mobile experience skills to develop bespoke creative solutions. Finding companies who had a real need of our expertise was where we’ve improved.

It’s a real win-win for the client and for us. It was where Calvium really started to accelerate.

Digital town crier at Porth Teigr

Which technology has developed the fastest and influenced the way you work the most in the last ten years?

I think it’s the embedding of technologies within mobile, as well as the capabilities of mobile, particularly in image-related technologies. A big driver of mobile, of course, is the camera and the rise of the selfie. So that’s accelerated the embedding of facial recognition, machine learning—everything visual. A lot of that kind of blending of aspects, the blending of AI into camera-related visual technology for example, is where we’ve seen massive, massive growth.

In what sector or area do you think Calvium’s work has had the most impact in the last ten years?

It is that fusing together of people, places, and technology. I think that the impact we’ve had there has been significant. Continuing this passion, which is where our roots lay, recognising what might be delivered through that, and being able to change with the times and commercial reality, is going to be crucial in the next ten years.

So what project, or projects, over the last ten years are you most proud of?

I think I’d highlight two.

The first is the Rolls-Royce and the foreign object debris (FOD) app. It is currently being tested at NavAir and started from an earlier project that we did with Rolls-Royce.

So on any airfield, you have to make sure that the runways are clear of any debris because when the plane takes off, it can get sucked into the engine and cause catastrophic damage.

On military bases, they need to do the same. They often have FOD walks where Marines will have a look for something on the runways. And when they see anything, they have to pick it up, bag it, label it, and then report it to the FOD Officer. Of course, the critical part there is—if you think about military operations, which we developed this for—if you find a nut on the ground that’s come out of the aircraft, the speed with which you can diagnose where the nut is from and then let somebody know about a potential problem with their fuselage or undercarriage… that can saves lives.

Our FOD app digitises the current paper based system. It can be used in a routine FOD walk and gets photographs quickly back so that the FOD officer can quickly review and report whenever necessary. We developed it in an agile way incorporating a number of trials at different air bases.

It uses our experience of user centred design and our capability to understand and build things quickly and agilely to test them in the field. So I’m hoping it will be a watershed in terms of allowing Calvium to have the credibility to work with other large aerospace companies because we’ve got a testimonial system that we can reference.

Woman holds an iPhone showing directions, with the Wales Millenium Centre in the background.
UCAN Go being used in the Wales Millennium Centre

The other project that I’m most proud of is UCAN GO. When I get the opportunity to work where you can really make a difference to people’s lives, that’s the thing that motivates me the most. Helping registered blind young people develop a solution that they are really excited and proud to use was really inspiring. And of course, that’s gone on to further our work with NavSta, where we try to extend that for people with hidden impairments.

Where do you see Calvium making a big impact in the next ten years?

I think one place where Calvium could make a big impact in is in changing the lives of many people through the proper design of good systems to make things better.

That’s where I’d really like to get to. If we can actually come up with a product that helps increase accessibility to public spaces which is so useful for everyone that it becomes economically viable, then that’d be perfect.

We want to strengthen and broaden our work with aerospace companies to build on the knowhow and the stuff we can do there. I think we could really make a difference to improving all aspects of aerospace and their supply chain by bringing our expertise in rapid mobile development and understanding and design to really improve their operations.

And then we’re also hoping to be able to build our digital placemaking services and platforms for cities. We want to create some visionary services by taking a human-first approach, not a tech-first approach. I’d really like to see if we can make a difference which is commercially viable and sustainable.

And finally, carrying on the trajectory from where we started 10 years ago—where we wanted to help make these platforms available to improve the lives of everyone—that’s still where we want to go; we’ve just taken a few detours along the way and strengthened our positioning. But it is still what motivates me.