Experiential Living

“We don’t need more stuff – we’re happier when we spend our money on experiences.”

Matt Roberts describes his business, Portal Devices, as an ‘creator of solutions for immersive experiences’. A designer, engineer and contractor for some of the world’s leading theme parks, museums, galleries and installations, it’s his job to listen to his clients’ wildest ideas and turn them into reality, using the most cutting-edge audio-visual technology.

“When I came back after leaving the industry for a few years, my first job was to go to a cute little planetarium in New York. I flew over there, having spent a few years doing heavy engineering, and there’s a theatre full of school kids, all wowed and amazed and loving it. That’s my motivation – that happy chatter and buzz as people are coming out. We made their day!”

Experiential living is an idea that has been advocated by writer and public speaker James Wallman; an economic model that is more sustainable and leaves people happier and healthier. In his book Stuffocation, Wallman argues that materialism is less fulfilling than creating memories, and that our culture is moving towards a model based on access instead of ownership.

The cinema industry was the first to feel this shift, responding to the threat of home entertainment systems by doubling down on the experience of ‘going to the movies’ with comfortable seating, fancy snacks and high-tech sound systems, projectors and more.

It all makes sense to Matt, who has spent most of his 20-year engineering career working within the attractions industry on the kind of innovative, high precision, immersive displays that leave indelible memories.

“A really rewarding project that we worked on recently was a fantastic immersive experience at Market Hall in Plymouth, as part of an urban regeneration project. That’s an exemplar of how this line of work can just create something immensely fun that becomes a hub for the local community and reinvigorates it.”

Prof. John Roberts (second from left, top row) with the University of Sussex faculty

A Life at Sussex

Matt’s father, John Brian Roberts was a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sussex for more than 30 years, eventually becoming Dean of Engineering and then Pro-Vice Chancellor. Matt remembers visiting the campus often as a child.

“I remember the Innovation Centre being built when I was a fledgling. And I went off, mastered in mechanical engineering, and occasionally dealt with companies from here. It’s in my roots. My father was a big advocate of the local engineering community as well. So I’ve got a passion for doing things locally, especially with the University of Sussex. And that’s what led us to set up our design studio here.”

Matt brings his experience of designing high-precision, well-engineered products for the likes of NASA, Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite to the world of general immersive theatres, where technical demands have been growing steadily more demanding as creative teams chase the ‘wow factor’ that will keep visitors coming through the door.

Clients often come to Portal Devices with a challenge to help them craft a new and unique experience for audiences, and Matt thinks of his role as a partner in the entire process – offering design to solve problems, engineering to validate and perfect the design, and then high-quality production to deliver it. They might engineer the visual systems, audio integration, or mechanical design such as rigging and built environments.

“It’s quite common when we work with a visitor attraction that a creative comes up with a radical idea – for an experience, a visual or an acoustic effect. No-one might have any idea how to actually produce it, and you start with wiggly lines, a sketch, hand gestures… maybe a storyboard of the experience.

“For the biggest projects it’s not unheard of to spend tens of millions of pounds on top-of-the-line equipment, and then we have other clients who are looking to do something really unique and memorable with a fraction of the budget. We relish those chats; you have to be very, very innovative.”

Projection Equipment Projection Equipment

Cutting-Edge Technology Partnerships

Portal Devices are constantly on the lookout for technology partners who can help them to solve this wide range of client challenges – something that their tenancy at Sussex Innovation has helped with. Through introductions and networking events, Matt has built connections with start-ups like Catalyst Corporation, who design immersive training environments, and Emteq Labs, who have developed emotion-sensing VR goggles.

Most recently, Matt has started collaborating with University of Sussex spinout Metasonixx on a top-secret project, as he explains:

“The biggest shift in the market has been towards spatial audio. This technology has rapidly developed after being seeded in the cinema industry, but now it’s getting into the installation space and much more freeform environments. Suddenly you need to tightly control the directionality of sound and where it seems to be coming from, or you need localised sound, where you can only hear the audio by standing in a small space within a much larger exhibit.

“So, we’ve been introducing acoustics over the last few years into everything that we do, particularly looking at spatial audio to enhance the experience. Through Peter Lane and Sussex Innovation, we were introduced to Gianluca Memoli of MetaSonixx, who is developing some very cool audio technology at the University’s Interact Lab.”

MetaSonixx is a University of Sussex spinout company that specialises in re-engineering common materials like metal, plastic and wood to block and redirect sound. In much the same way that projectors and LCD displays focus and shape light, their patented acoustic panels provide an unprecedented level of control over sound and noise.

Crucially for Portal Devices, the Metasonixx technology is based around changing the physical properties of relatively low-cost materials. This makes it both affordable and adaptable, giving them access to a wide range of design options to offer clients. The two companies are now collaborating to develop the world’s best acoustic immersive screen, cutting out echoes and reverberations to leave a completely clean sound.

“We operate as a network organisation,” Matt continues. “So we need to have very close relationships with our collaborators. There are often patents and IP involved, or projects that our clients want to keep a closely guarded secret. These are highly skilled jobs that involve a lot of technical expertise, so we have handpicked specialists who can offer the exact specialism that’s needed at the right time.

“The convenience of being based here on campus has been fundamental to building that relationship with the likes of Metasonixx. When you are part of an incubator environment it gives you the security to take on these kinds of high-risk, high-reward technology projects. It’s a challenging business model, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything because we’re working with some of the most talented creatives and technologists in the industry.”