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The UK’s creative talents have inspired and dazzled the world for centuries — expressing ingenuity on stages, screens, and new media platforms.

Its globally recognised film studios and effects houses in London, Belfast and elsewhere, have sustained a long-standing practice of joining forces with international counterparts from Bollywood to Hollywood. The UK’s worldwide output of film industry services alone is nearly £2 billion a year.

The influence of British imagination is sparking innovation in digital games with 23% of this industry’s top development studios based in the country. Challenging conventions and reshaping our landscape, renowned UK architects are also helping other nations craft a future of firsts through work on groundbreaking spaceports and smart buildings.

Running man installation

What if a man’s Twitter followers came to life, prompting a crowd of people to swarm around him? Imagine a 3D piece of architecture continuously changing shape and texture as it charges forward on two legs.

Such surreal scenarios are not just the stuff of dreams. They are two examples of 21st century masterpieces by Universal Everything, a Sheffield digital design studio breaking new ground in creative visualisation through visionary thinking and high-tech tools.

The aforementioned architectural ‘video sculpture’ was shown at Beijing’s Museum of Fine Arts, Ars Electronica in Linz, and other art spaces, and ultimately caught the attention of Hyundai.

The Seoul automaker commissioned Universal Everything to create a bespoke adaptation of it to highlight the brand’s recycling process.

The result: Running Man, a riveting motion capture video and musical score which visualises the evolution of smouldering steel in human-like form into automobile and then back into steel again. The work was displayed in three locations, including New York’s Times Square.

“A significant proportion of our time is spent developing our own art pieces, prototypes and concepts and releasing them into the world in museums, exhibitions and galleries,” says Matt Pyke, Universal Everything’s founder and creative director, “Then they get seen by brands and turned into commercial commissions.”

“We’re trying to find new tools that we can use to create new forms of expression that could only be achieved by, say, motion capture, body tracking technology or holographic screens.”

Immersed in Tech

Likewise, the latest advances in video displays have piqued his interest, among them both irregular-shaped and transparent screens. Universal Everything is relentless in keeping up with emerging tech.

“We’re trying to find new tools that we can use to create new forms of expression that could only be achieved by, say, motion capture, body tracking technology or holographic screens,” he says.

He and his team have used Microsoft’s Kinect body tracking hardware to reshape human body movement into abstract real-time animation.

Joining forces with renowned French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, they captured dancers’ moves and transformed them into non-figurative digital art for a London Science Museum installation.

“We’re trying to find new tools that we can use to create new forms of expression that could only be achieved by, say, motion capture, body tracking technology or holographic screens.”

The Next Level of Design

One of Universal Everything’s newest creative forays has led them back to an exploration they began over a decade ago. Pyke and his brother Simon, a sound designer, had been researching synesthesia, a sense-crossing condition which makes people hear colours and taste sounds.

They now have plans to produce a series of immersive 360-degree films which visualise Simon’s music and take it to the next level: virtual reality. Pyke is in talks with a VR company and headset manufacturers to make this happen.

“VR is the ultimate way of creating these fully immersive, expressive all-encompassing ideas, which are very different to the narrative of traditional cinema,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of plans for VR in the future. It’s definitely going to be a big part of the studio.”

Even while embracing such tech and speeding ahead towards new frontiers, the Universal Everything team is keeping its eyes on perhaps the most precious innovation of all: creativity.

Pyke adds: “The most important thing for us is that the technology is invisible or very distant and the creative expression remains in the foreground.”

Art installation
“The most important thing for us is that the technology is invisible or very distant and the creative expression remains in the foreground.”
Business class cabin on a plane

Imagine a lavish apartment, complete with carpets hand-tufted in Switzerland and leather armchairs crafted in partnership with Ferrari upholsterers Poltrona Frau. Behind a pair of elegant trellised screen doors, further decorative details, like marquetry, are revealed.

Such is the interior view at 30,000 feet in Etihad Airways’ game-changing first class cabin, a concept designed by award-winning UK consultancy Acumen Design Associates.

These opulent sky nooks known as First Apartments — each accommodating a separate passenger — are perhaps only bested by the crowning jewel of Etihad’s first class: The Residence. This unique super-luxury suite features a living space, enclosed bedroom with designer Italian bed linens and a private en-suite shower room.

“This was really an exercise in reinstating what it is to travel first class and making sure passengers get tangible value from the extra money they pay,” says Anthony Harcup, Acumen’s associate director.

The groundbreaking platform, which he co-invented, was in part a response to the trend of business class offerings increasingly resembling those of first class, among them lay flat beds.

World’s First Bed in the Sky

This is an area Acumen not only understands but pioneered. Before cementing a reputation for disruptive commercial aviation design, one of its nautical projects had caught the eye of British Airways (BA), which commissioned the firm to revolutionise its first class cabin.

In 1996, Acumen rolled out the never-before-seen bed in the sky for BA. Industry response was overwhelming.

“Every tier one airline in the world sat up and took notice and they all wanted their own version,” says Harcup. The flat bed went from first class sensation to business class benchmark.

Acumen was founded in London in 1981 by current CEO Ian Dryburgh, and its team has gone on to design cabins and in-flight furnishings for scores of other top airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, Delta and Lufthansa.

The consultancy, which broadly works with blue chip companies and across other sectors creating everything from round paper towels to baby cots, has also done exterior styling and packaging on economy class products.

First class flat bed cabin

Travelling Light

Always looking ahead, the team is teasing out ideas for the next wave in aircraft interiors: “Transforming clumsy and outdated products into much more integrated, lightweight, sophisticated designs,” according to Harcup. He sees flexible OLED displays and touch screens, HD projections and VR headsets as elements of the cabin of the (near) future.

Acumen is also looking to bring its expertise to the emerging autonomous vehicles market. Cars without drivers have their design perks, such as seats which needn’t follow the traditional automotive precedent of facing forward.

Barber sees synergy between these developments and Acumen’s experience in crafting business class seating as an opportunity. She concludes optimistically: “Suddenly, we can change the whole paradigm.”

Person operating a futuristic computer
Half of a British Flag