by Edward Qualtrough

CIO UK podcast episode 14 – Royal Opera House CTO Joe McFadden on immersive experiences and digital transformation

Feb 12, 2019
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

Credit: IDG

Royal Opera House CTO Joe McFadden joined CIO UK Editor Edward Qualtrough during episode 14 of the CIO UK podcast to discuss immersive experiences, ticketing challenges, digital development, sustainability, and the technological aspect of the Open Up project at the 300-year-old institution.

The Chief Technology Officer spoke about what digital transformation means for the Royal Opera House and what it might mean in future, and how the ROH Audience Labs team was experimenting with augmented reality, virtual reality – and working with leading artists on a number of R&D projects.

News UK CTO Christina Scott and News Corp Global Operations Centre CIO Sabah Carter also spoke to the CIO UK podcast at the recent Change forum hosted by News UK and innovation experts Fluxx, an event which brought together people from across the media landscape to discuss product, data and technology.

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Chief Technology Officer McFadden said that the Open Up project, a three-year construction programme and refurbishment at the Royal Opera House, had been his focus since joining in 2015 and that now was the opportunity to build on that platform.

“We have delivered a really solid foundation for what we’re going to build on in terms of customer experience, and that’s picked up a number of different aspects,” he said. “It’s about how we engage our audiences online and how that then follows through as they visit the Royal Opera House either as a daytime visitor or to see one of our performances.

“It’s the end of the construction phase. But actually, it’s the start of the next stage of the journey of how we really deliver and learn from what we’re doing. Delivering ever more personalised and ever more immersive digital experience in this journey from online to physical and then back to online, and learn what works for our audiences.”

Joe McFadden and Edward Qualtrough recording the CIO UK podcast IDG

Joe McFadden and Edward Qualtrough recording the CIO UK podcast

Immersive experiences

McFadden espoused emerging immersive technologies like VR and AR, and the impact they might have in creating new art forms and developing more traditional ones.

“Immersive technologies is an area that I’m personally very interested in, very passionate about; the Opera House is also now investing in that area,” McFadden said.

“We’ve set up a dedicated unit, which sits between myself and another senior colleague, our Director of Audiences and Media – so effectively our CMO to put it in those terms – and that’s an Audience Lab to look at some of these emerging technologies in the longer term, about how they create new opportunities for different kinds of experience.

“Ultimately an arts organisation, a cultural institution – we’re about delivering amazing experiences. Experiences, you can’t get anywhere else. The potential to take those experiences into a virtual reality, or a mixed reality, where the rules for ballet, for example, don’t have to be the rules of the real physical world – and what possibilities that might open up for creative people of the calibre of Wayne McGregor, our resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet, and the curiosity and intelligence he brings to his work.

“Wayne is one of the people working with the Audience Labs team on a number of emerging projects around immersive technology. We’re going to be in a position to announce those more publicly later in 2019.

“Both on the the ballet side, and also on the opera side, the potential for immersive technologies is just super exciting. That cuts across the creative industries, not just the performing arts. A number of peer organisations are looking at these areas, increasingly, as a way of bringing the magic of live performance or visual arts into literally a different reality.”


McFadden also added that he was taking a lead on technology sustainability initiatives at Covent Garden, something that had also been embedded in aspects of the Open Up project. He also called on CIOs and CTOs, and indeed anyone in a position of influence, with a powerful message that they could make a difference on some of society’s most burning issues.

“One of the other responsibilities I’ve got now at the Opera House is kind of being the lead on what we’re doing in terms of sustainability,” McFadden said. “And as a major cultural institution, that’s something we take very seriously; we ought to be an example to the sector. In the Open Up project, that was very much the approach we took.

“Any CIO or CTO has the opportunity to make a big difference there. I’m sure a lot of us are thinking about that.

“If you are a CIO or CTO, and as anyone is you’re seeing what’s in the news about climate change – 12 years for us to make a difference. Just remember, you could make a difference in your job. And I hope you do.”

News UK CTO Christina Scott spoke to the CIO UK podcast Fluxx Studios

News UK CTO Christina Scott spoke to the CIO UK podcast

Speaking to the CIO UK podcast after her hosting duties at the Change forum at the London Symphony Orchestra’s St Luke’s venue at the beginning of February 2019 where she closed the day interviewing Monzo bank co-founder and CTO Jonas Huckestein, News UK CTO Scott said that organisations needed to focus on the longer term interests of the customer and brand

“It came through very strongly that actually, sometimes you have to do something that is right for the customer even if it’s detrimental to revenue, which is a very difficult decision to make,” Scott said.

“But it was a fantastic example given by Netflix – sometimes the amount of value to your brand is perhaps greater in long run than the direct revenue you get immediately for doing something.”

News Corp Global Operations CIO Sabah Carter spoke to the CIO UK podcast Fluxx Studios

News Corp Global Operations CIO Sabah Carter spoke to the CIO UK podcast

Carter, CIO of the News Corp Global Operations Centre, said that people and organisational culture were two of her priorities for 2019 – and she added that despite disruption in the media industry content was still king and organisations needed to focus on innovations that improved the customer experience and the balance sheet.

“I think talent remains a really big agenda item for CIOs this year. Even in Bangalore where we have a facility, we face the same issues around recruitment of key talent in data science, infrastructure and security.

“Voice has been around for a long time as we know, but actually content remains king. I think the issue for us and for other publishers and across other industries, it’s about being able to understand what value it is going to generate and the margin it’s going to make.

“It’s great to do something really innovative, but first is it going to be hard to copy, and secondly are you going to make money from it? I think what we want to do is not keep playing with these innovations but make them applicable to real life and our bottom line.”

Launched in January 2018, the CIO UK podcast is a monthly discussion featuring CIOs, commentators and technology executives thrashing out the key issues relevant to the UK’s business and technology leaders – as well as the tangential and irreverent musings of guest CIOs.