Obscura Digital's downtown San Francisco digs are like an alternate universe dreamed up by someone who's been mainlining Pixy Stix.
"Check this out," says Patrick Connolly, the company's CEO, pressing a button on his iPhone. A 6-foot-long Chinese dragon appears on the opposite wall and slithers through the loft's wooden beams. Then Connolly leads me into a full-surround dome. "This is something we're working on for Heineken," he says. An upright, larger-than-life beer bottle materializes in the center of the space. As amber liquid gushes from the bottle, hits the roof, and trickles down the walls, I catch my breath, half-expecting to get a lungful of frothy bubbles. "That's hecka tight, you fool!" Connolly shouts at Travis Threlkel, the company's creative director. "You got some kind of particle physics going on there?"
Connolly — a scrappy 41-year-old in yellow patent-leather Prada sneakers — directs a team of computer graphic artists and engineers who create visual spaces and displays so groundbreaking that other design studios not only can't emulate them, they never would have conjured them in the first place. The largest projection dome on the planet, equipped with a real-time video stream? A 10-story, 60,000-lumen projection of a Michael Graves painting? If you can dream it up on an acid trip, Obscura can reproduce it — on a seismic scale. The company's engineers have devised software programs that seamlessly combine images from multiple hi-def projectors, making mathematical corrections to account for irregular screening surfaces (a complex image given a fish-eye tweak, for instance, will look appropriately flat when projected onto a curved wall). The proprietary algorithms that drive these programs allow the team to display virtually any image on any surface — a brick building, a jumbo jet, or the hood and windshield of a new Saturn hybrid — with no distortion. "We're into the immersive experience. It's a holodeck kind of thing," Connolly says, referring to the computer-simulated architecture first imagined in Star Trek. "I can turn this room into the south of France. I can turn this pillar into a waterfall."
There is a guiding philosophy behind the company's free-form creative pyrotechnics. Obscura wants to take a generation of consumers left hungry by the endless flow of pap advertising and force-feed them some high-protein imaginative fiber. "We're not just doing cool things for cool things' sake; we're using our technology to make extensions of a brand," says Connolly. "We're trying to pull these companies out of the Stone Age."
From cutting-edge tech firms to old-world industrial giants, the world's most prominent companies are buying into this tantalizing pitch in droves. The buzz started when Oracle commissioned Obscura to build a video dome for its OracleWorld 2003 conference; the display introduced 20,000 visitors to grid computing by taking them on a virtual roller-coaster ride through the maze of chips and wires inside an Oracle machine. Obscura's business snowballed after that. In 2007, its 90-foot projection dome was the toast of Zeitgeist, Google's annual VIP partner summit, where corporate scenesters such as Al Gore and Time Warner chief Richard Parsons clinked glasses while glaciers, forests, and star systems soared overhead. And when Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman of Dubai-based Nakheel, heard about the Zeitgeist splash-out, he had a "mine's bigger than Google's" moment. He asked Obscura to build a 93-foot-wide projection dome to help plug the real estate company's planned Universe development — a series of man-made islands shaped like suns, moons, and planets. Using an uncompressed video playback system Obscura engineers had devised, production artists incorporated just-filmed video into the Universe presentation at an in-your-face resolution of 10 megapixels. "We took a shot of the islands with a helicopter flyover camera," says interactive designer Ron Robinson, "and projected that onto the dome." Says Nakheel CEO Chris O'Donnell: "It blew us away. Everyone who came marveled at not only the project but also the technology. It was so successful our chairman said, 'I want this dome for myself.' "
With dome budgets priced from $100,000 to more than $1 million for Nakheel's, what's good for the sultan is good for Obscura. And with no direct competitors — Imax Dome projection systems, by contrast, are limited to 180-degree surround, and visual-design shops like Studio360 stick to smaller-scale interactive fare such as Web sites and kiosks — the company has racked up high-profile commissions from
"The thing about working with these guys is you never know quite how a project's going to come out; you just know they have great taste and are going to wow everybody," says Andy Berndt, managing director of Google's creative lab. He booked Connolly and his crew to simultaneously project multistory artworks by Jeff Koons, Shepard Fairey, and others onto multiple buildings in Manhattan's Meatpacking District for the May relaunch of iGoogle. "It's not like you do one thing with them, and that's it. They call you up afterward and say, 'Hey, you guys have to come over and check this out,' " says Berndt. After GM hired the Obscura team to design a booth at the North American International Auto Show, GM digital marketing director Scott McLaren says he plans to keep calling Obscura ad infinitum. "They ask you, 'What do you need to get done?' and they take it as a personal challenge to get that done, regardless of your budget."
No one is more bemused by Obscura's success than its founder and creative director, Travis Threlkel. A long-haired former guitarist for the neo-psychedelic band the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Threlkel — who never graduated from high school — spent the mid-1990s holed up in his warehouse space creating off-the-wall visual effects. "I collected 100 film projectors, and I'd just set them up and let them all go," he says. "I wanted to take things that didn't exist and make them real." A tech autodidact, he started experimenting with projection techniques that allowed him to achieve a look where image and canvas were one. Obscura didn't make money at first (it is now profitable), but it did get props for wild originality. Threlkel's first big commission in 2002, a surround video display for Vue — a now defunct New York club — won an award from an industry trade magazine.
Enter Connolly, a dotcom veteran looking for his next big play (he headed Stockpoint, an early Internet stock-trading company that sold for $22.6 million in 2001). When an old fraternity brother introduced him to Threlkel in 2002, Connolly knew he'd found the perfect rehab project: great technology, hazy business plan. "I said, 'This is a very creative kid, but he needs some funding and management.' " Threlkel agrees: "I'm not such a good businessperson."
Like any fertile collaboration, their one-plus-one added up to something closer to pi. While Threlkel has always been a font of out-there ideas, it is Connolly's guidance that has transformed them into salable concepts. Take, for example, a slightly flawed virtual-reality video-gaming "pod" Threlkel designed: "Travis wasn't thinking about how the rapid motion might make people sick," Connolly says. "So I said, 'Let's calm this thing down and repurpose it to help people visualize real estate.' " Months later, Nakheel placed an order for the remixed pods to use as sales tools in each of its Dubai property showrooms.
As Obscura grew, Threlkel played the Pied Piper, convincing a motley crew of builders from Oregon to move to the Bay Area and construct über-domes, jumbo touch displays, and other fantastical video-projection treatments. "In 2000, I was running my family business in Oregon, Pacific Domes," says Chris Lejeune, Obscura's head of production. "Travis's first project with Obscura involved surround projection, so he called me up and we hit it off. I was intending to move to San Francisco anyway, so the timing was perfect." Lejeune and his building crew, who call themselves G-Bohs (for gypsy bohemians), feature dreadlocks, multiple piercings, and a postapocalyptic style. But their guiding ethos is straightforward: Failure is impossible.
Case in point: Forty-eight hours before the kickoff show of last year's multimedia Pioneer Electronics tour, the crew faced an odd snafu. "We hired a driver to transport our equipment to Phoenix," says Matty Dowlen, the head G-Boh, "but the guy decided it would be more fun to stop and have a little crack-and-poker break." Faced with blowing a gig with a high-profile client and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment, the crew launched a tech dragnet. Armed with only a cell number, they convinced the phone carrier to reveal the driver's recent call log, which included a call to a helpful prostitute. "When the crew caught up with the driver, thanks to the woman's tip, there were crack pipes and hookers all over the truck," Dowlen says. As he tells the story, the police were no help, claiming, "He was just late for work." Applying a little vigilante justice, the G-Bohs repossessed the truck and drove to the Phoenix show at breakneck speed, stranding the driver and his new friends in the desert dust. "We just worked around the clock and pulled it off," says Dowlen.
In part, the G-Boh work ethic is based on a code of having one another's back. "We've been working together longer than Obscura's been around," Dowlen says. "We're a family." But it's also a testament to the genuine respect they have for Threlkel and Connolly's vision. Says Dowlen: "There's a sense that we're building something unique and beautiful. Yeah, we do work for corporations, but we're giving them a piece of what we love."
Obscura can't afford to be precious these days. They're so slammed they're lucky to carve out a couple of weeks for any given job. The interest has put Obscura in the unfamiliar position of auditioning potential customers — deciding which projects to pursue and which to pass on. "We have a basic test: 'Is that stupid, or is that going to be anything?' " says Connolly.
The attention is expanding into top-tier venture-capital circles as well. When David Weiden of Khosla Ventures (which primarily funds environmental startups; see page 92) pays a visit to the Obscura offices, Connolly takes him through a dome and past the undulating Chinese dragon. "Here's something wild," he says, walking over to an empty stage tucked in a corner. He presses a button, and the five long-legged members of British pop group Girls Aloud materialize, high-heeled and bustiered. It's a projection — a scaled image trained on a nearly invisible Mylar scrim — but looks eerily real.
Instead of pulling out his checkbook, Weiden furrows his brow and slides his black-stockinged foot in and out of his shoe. "If I was a big company, I'd be interested in this," he says slowly. "You're doing cool, creative stuff here. I think right now if I was a CEO, I'd hire you, but I'm not sure I'd invest in you. What's the billion-dollar company here? You need to articulate: Is this going to be a great company, or a great technology design shop?"
The kinetic Connolly seems temporarily stilled by Weiden's reaction. "Our services business is top-notch. We just need to find a way to manage the product route," he muses after the meeting. Connolly knows his company is at a crossroads and has produced prototypes with potential mass appeal: A projector that turns your living room into the rainforest, an interactive whiteboard that could become a boardroom staple, a touch-screen game application that is hyperinteractive and removes the need for a controller.
Soon the unbalanced force that runs through Connolly is in motion again: "In the past, it was either products or services, black or white, but there may be this evolving hybrid where we can do both," he says. "Right now, it's like we're a Labrador retriever in a room full of tennis balls, and we can't stop picking them up."
And what, really, is so wrong with going after every ball? The Obscura crew is reveling in the moment. "We're so booked right now it's crazy," Connolly says. "Last week, I went from Detroit to Dubai, then to Minneapolis. I was in, like, five different time zones. I just heard from a guy who owns one of the world's largest megayachts — he wants us to go out there and do a multimedia retrofit of the entire vessel" — complete with touch whiteboards that will serve as a digital concierge to manage everything from GPS to weather mapping, not to mention popcorn delivery to an onboard theater (total price: $10 million). "How frickin' James Bond '80s is that, man?!" At moments like these, it's clear that Obscura's 10-year plan — or lack thereof — is utterly beside the point.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.