Engineering Magic For The Masses With PixMob CTO Vincent Leclerc
PixMob is a Montreal-based entertainment company that operates its own proprietary lighting technologies to control wireless LED wearables. In synchronized and choreographed light shows, PixMob technology transforms audiences into a part of the entertainment itself.
Since launching in 2010, cofounders David Parent (CEO) and Vincent Leclerc (CTO) have built their company to more than 80 people servicing events worldwide including Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour, the 2014 Super Bowl Halftime Show and the Sochi Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies.
Earlier this year, PixMob announced its latest engagement platform, klik, which leverages the PixMob wristband to create meaningful, interactive experiences for live crowds.
Techvibes had a chance to chat with Leclerc on PixMob’s story to date and what their future looks like.
How did a Montreal MIT grad find a global market so quickly?
At the very beginning I really wanted to get out of Canada and do international stuff as much as possible. The first client we had was Microsoft and Cirque du Soleil. So we did the first event in LA for E3—the gaming convention—but we didn’t even know what the event was until we arrived there.
That was our first event, then we did Coachella. Then we started doing more and more events. And now we do one almost everyday, somewhere in the world.
As far as Canadian tech success stories, yours is an impressive one. But your story hasn’t really been told locally because you leapfrogged out of Canada on day one.
And all over the globe. We have clients mostly in the U.S. and a lot in Asia, Japan, Korea and Singapore, and then we have also Europe and South America. Canada is great to live but for us in terms of the type of stuff we do in entertainment, it’s not the best environment. There’s way more money elsewhere for that.
There’s certainly more eyes in the U.S., so a lot of our clients are brands and they use us as a way to get new eyes and create experiences that people remember and want to share with each other. Brands really like that.
Cirque du Soleil and Microsoft are massive first clients. How did you land that?
When I got out of MIT about ten years ago, I invented technology that displayed three-dimensional video and I got invited by Wired in New York to showcase it as one of 100 technologies that will shape the future. There were headhunters from Cirque du Soleil, and one of the artistic directors and I started a discussion. I told him about a different and kind of a weird idea: we could transform an audience into a connected light that changes colors and creates a submersive experience that unifies people, makes them enjoy the moment and feel something special. I said it was just an idea—we were still working on the technology.
The guy came back to me two years later and he said, “You told me about this idea a few years ago, is it ready now?” And I was like, s***—it was not ready. I told him it kind of works and he asked to meet the next day.
All night I was trying to figure out how we could solve this and find a way and that’s how it got started. We had two months from the meeting to the show to actually build out the technology and have the whole thing produced and create an experience out of it. It’s not just a tech demo; it’s a big show. So I hired people from MIT, some of my friends, and they came and helped and we made it happen. It was a great show.
You went to school at MIT, then went back to Canada—to start a global company. What’s the thinking there?
Canada is great because of the government support. There’s lots of funding to help businesses like us to reach out and become global very fast. One of them is a scientific research and experimental development program that helps us a lot because what we do; there’s no other companies doing what we do.
We develop everything from scratch, from hardware to software, from firmware to design, and there’s a lot of risk with that. The government is willing to help us by offloading some of the cost of that research that we do. So that helps a lot compared to the U.S. where we would need investors from day one.
You used to teach at Concordia. To what extent is education integrated into the PixMob company culture?
I think we spend a lot of time to find the right people. We only hire A-players. We don’t hire people because we’re in a rush and we need staff right now. Sometimes we just have to say no to projects and say we we don’t have enough staff. It’s really important.
In terms of other types of training, it’s on a per-need basis and more of the traditional stuff. All of our Directors have MBA’s, and some of them didn’t have them so we offered it to them–things like that.
All the people we hire have exceptional talents and weird passions. There’s a lot of cross-training that happens because of that. When everybody’s passionate about their weird thing, it influences each other to keep being curious and keep doing research.
You have a lot of gadgets. Do you get to be hands-on with your technology?
I have to be hands-off but sometimes I just dive in. I have a really exceptional team of people so I learned to trust them and their decisions even though I wouldn’t necessarily do it the same way. Still, their ideas are much better than whatever I would think of because they’re so deep into the problem they’re trying to solve.
I am hands-on in a way because I’m still interested, but I have to step back a lot. We have over 30 people in R&D and they’re all amazing guys. Oftentimes I’m asking them more questions about new technologies.
Right now, we have two major technologies that we use: infrared systems and radio frequency. But we’re not stuck there. We have ideas for the next 20 years so we have more discussions about future tech.
It seems the CTO role changes once a company hits a certain size—more operations and sales than pure tech.
That and I think there’s also a non-formal leadership role. That has to happen to keep people motivated and pushing the boundaries. We’ve been very good at that from the very beginning. We don’t use existing technology; we start from scratch and invent our stuff. That gives us an edge on anything we do because we have full control over the system and we can hack different things.
Now we have a Bluetooth system that can reach 300 meters—nobody else can do that. But because we do this low-level stuff it allows us to do new things that people wouldn’t think would be possible. It’s a kind of leadership to push people out of their comfort zone and innovate the technologies we work with.
LED bands have a lot of opportunity today, but how do you innovate on that? What more can you do with lights on wrists that will fill out a 20-year roadmap?
What we realized after a few years doing that the lights on wrists is just a reason to create something memorable, unifying and immersive. But there are other ways to do that.
We’ve been very good at the enchantment part but not very good at the engagement part. We have been doing research on other technologies in infrared and realized that if we added bi-directional communication via Bluetooth, then we could have some kind of communication between people, giving them much more than just a light show.
That’s what klik is all about.
The whole idea behind klik was to still have an amazing light show experience, but we add engagement using a very simple experience. Now you don’t need your cellphone and you don’t need business cards because if you click next to someone that clicks as well, then you just exchange contact and become friends.
We realized as we built this that we could included all the social media features that are supposedly connecting people through screens, but into the real world so that people stay really connected. They can still face each other, they can still laugh together, and they can have all the power that is offered by social media which is recording moments, connecting people together, liking things, etc.
By adding all this functionality to the wearable, I think there’s a big roadmap that we can build on with a more engaging event that is less focused on visible technologies and more on invisible technologies that are smart enough to know what you mean when you do a gesture.
The apps that are surviving today are offering a more human interaction.
Yeah. And there’s a trend right towards VR and the AR right now, and there’s a market for that—but still a need for collective experiences.
VR is currently an isolated experience.
Right. I think there’s an even bigger need for more collective experiences. I think humans crave that kind of group feeling.
We’re pushing toward what I call embedded reality. That’s where we use physical objects as a means for interaction between people instead of having screens that do virtual reality, which is far away from actual reality.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.