LVL: Reinventing Digital Media Consumption, One Platform at a Time

Montreal-based LVL has been applying its creative and technological expertise to the enhancement of content experiences in the media and entertainment industry for 14 years.

The Media & Entertainment Services Alliance (MESA) caught up with Richard Z’Graggen, VP and head of experience design, to discuss where the industry is headed, what the biggest challenges are, where the opportunities lie and how LVL can help deliver best-in-class solutions to some of the biggest players in the industry.

MESA: LVL Studio has built its business with a focus on multiple platforms and transmedia experiences for entertainment companies. How has LVL seen the need for these new media solutions evolve, and how has LVL gone about providing them?

 Z’Graggen: The number of platforms keeps on growing, particularly on the smart TV and set-top-box fronts. In response, our clients have expressed a need for solutions that allow them to deliver great user experiences — consistent across all devices — in a cost and time-effective manner. There’s also been an industry shift whereby more and more companies seek to bridge the gap between classic TV viewership and digital media engagement. The consolidation of these two areas has helped to form an ecosystem that, if properly supported, can maximize a brand’s reach and impact. What’s more, much importance is placed on having instant access to relevant content — whatever the form. Having the ability to quickly re-skin and promote specific content based on live events, or the time and place this content is consumed, is vital in this day and age.

Not only does our approach address the issue of cross-platform functionality, it also takes operations into consideration. For example, we provide solutions that enable content merchandizing and we build storefronts that allow brands to offer true cross-content experiences with the integration of games, video, music, etc. To meet our clients’ needs, our next-generation solution, Heetoo, makes use of Unity software’s multi-platform features to publish to over twenty platforms. As a 3D gaming engine, it also opens the door to the growing interest in 360 video, augmented reality and virtual reality.

We are also witnessing maturity in the industry, with networks consolidating the management of their digital brands. Not only does this mean that more emphasis is placed on common platforms, it also requires a more refined business approach that involves looking to revenue models throughout the decision-making process — in other words, fewer “science fair” projects! By treating our transmedia and watch-along experiences as “inventory” for advanced advertising, it is easier to build revenue models that evaluate their viability and relevance.

MESA: LVL works with operators, media producers and broadcasters alike. Can you speak a bit about the unique needs of each, and offer some examples for their differing needs?

Z’Graggen: First, it’s important to note that there is a lot of commonality with regard to their respective needs. For one, they must all foster loyalty and enhance connectivity with their subscribers or audiences. They are also faced with the challenge of taming the multi-platform madness and, of course, generating revenue.

There are, however, some notable differences as well. At one end of the spectrum there are media producers, who must actively bolster their shows’ brand and social media presence. Producers want to attract round-the-clock attention to their shows, and this means cultivating interest in experiences that extend beyond the 30 or 60 minute broadcast window. Watch-along, 360 video and virtual reality make sense to them.

On the other end of the spectrum there are operators, who are less concerned with show-specific extras and more interested in the agnostic wholesale distribution of video assets. Personalized recommendations and content merchandizing are key concerns because, if subscribers cannot quickly find relevant content, they will look to other sources such as YouTube and Netflix. That being said, these operators are not concerned when audiences switch from one channel to another, so long as they stay subscribed.

Networks occupy the middle ground as they increasingly deliver content directly to consumers through their Web properties and apps. They are navigating a new world and are faced with technological challenges they did not previously have to worry about.

Of course, there are also scenarios in which the lines are blurred. For example, many operators own networks, and many networks produce their own shows. Navigating this complex terrain certainly keeps us on our toes; however, it definitely helps that we are specialized in this industry and that our clients value the expertise we bring to the field.

MESA: These multi-platform, viewer-involved campaigns don’t happen overnight. Can you detail some of the processes behind getting these projects from concept to launch (use cases, monetization models, content strategy, etc.)?

Z’Graggen: There are so many possible directions a project may take, so we begin by focusing on the big ideas. What defines the show or the property? What are the key business drivers? What would make an outstanding user experience? With a clearly defined problem statement, our creative team ideates and proposes. We vet high-level solutions against technological and business objectives and then get down to the nuts and bolts of designing and building the product.

In a turnkey project, our work doesn’t end with a QA and version 1 hand off. We’ll often drive the launch plan, which includes marketing and social media campaigns; assist with operational workflows such as content strategy and maintenance workflows; and finally, we’ll work with data and user feedback to pivot and update the product roadmap strategy for version 2.

It certainly doesn’t all happen overnight, but we work on several projects in an agile / lean UX process that allows us get to market more rapidly with scaled-down solutions that validate hypotheses within a continuous development cycle. But that’s a whole other discussion!

MESA: Connected TVs, Roku, Chromecast, set-tops, iOS, Android, and, of course, Web sites. Describe the challenges with making these new consumer experiences work across devices and platforms, and how does LVL help its clients keep an eye out for what’s next?

Z’Graggen: There is always the challenge of creating interfaces that render properly across devices, especially considering that each device can be likened to a moving target, with continually updated versions and features. To us; however, the real challenge (or the most interesting one) is how to get each device to provide a pertinent experience to the user. How are we feeling in front of the TV? What are we trying to accomplish on our computers and what other windows are vying for our attention? Where are we, and what exactly are we doing when using our mobile phones? Our approach is to define scenarios related to specific user contexts and we find that the outcomes lead to solutions that feel quite seamless and natural. Of course, the more natural the experience is, the more the user will enjoy and make use of it. This is one of our guiding principles.

As for helping our clients remain informed, we are fortunate enough to work with many industry sectors. This makes it easier to get around complex solutions that require, for example, the participation and accord of producers, networks and operators alike.

MESA: The interactive segment of the documentary film “JFK: The Smoking Gun,” app development for AMC Story Sync for “The Walking Dead,” a VOD storefront for Bell Canada’s Fibe TV service … LVL has a number of high-profile successes under its belt. Can the company single out one or two of its favorite works, and share why they stand out?

Z’Graggen: Like millions of other followers, we love AMC’s Story Sync. Originating as a prototype for the hit series “Breaking Bad,” it found solid ground with “The Walking Dead” and became a multi-use platform that has now been used for a half-dozen other shows including “Turn,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” “The Killing,” “Better Call Saul” and “Fear the Walking Dead.” We deem it a true success when a product is considered to have “legs.”

We are also proud of the work we’ve accomplished with TELUS because of its breadth, variety and depth. Over the last decade our team has participated in TELUS’s success in the pay TV arena, where other operators have experienced losses in subscribers. Among the long list of work we’ve done together, one of our favorite products is a simple TV app known as The TED Talks Mediaroom app, which lets Optik subscribers view the popular conference videos via their set-top-boxes. We like it because it single-handedly raises the IQ of the TV set.

MESA: What exactly is LVL’s Purple … and what does it offer for broadcasters, programming directors, producers and marketers?

 Z’Graggen: Purple is the only adaptable watch-along everywhere platform for Live and VOD participation. It allows producers to bring all of their content to life and extend storytelling beyond traditional viewing with easy-to-use authoring and scheduling tools as well as pre-built client applications that optimize and deliver rich content across all devices and platforms.

For consumers, Purple is a content hub and watch-along experience for TV shows that delivers extras (recaps, photos, quotes, etc.) and added participation through polls, quizzes and contests. For producers it is an authoring and scheduling tool that creates these experiences. For marketers, it acts as a platform for advertising with direct calls to action and inventory that can be sponsored.

Our next-generation product, Heetoo, is taking this a step further. Heetoo is built around a 3D gaming engine (Unity) and opens the door to 360 video, augmented and virtual reality, and advanced 3D visualizations. It also ports natively to over twenty platforms. We believe that it will respond to many of the needs being voiced by today’s operators and networks as well as programming directors, producers and marketers.