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Resn goes east: Wellington-based digital agency heads to China

Creative digital agency Resn has officially opened its newest office in Shanghai. To mark the occasion, we're republishing this story about the agency's China dreams.

Original story published August 25, 2016: In Shenzhen, China, a Wellington-based digital agency is stepping into new territory, swapping its virtual pixels for materialised installations. Jihee Junn talks to Resn about expanding East, aesthetics, and virtual reality.

Sifting through Resn’s profile is an infectious affair. One minute, a reanimated Colonel Sanders is serenading you the history of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the next you’re being sold a Belvita breakfast biscuit while shaving a man’s virtual beard. For the uninitiated, none of this makes the slightest sense on paper. Which might be why flying over 9,000km to Shenzhen for a model showroom might not be such a bad idea. Sitting just north of Hong Kong, Shenzhen is a major city in mainland China’s Guangdong province and, in the 1980s, was designated the country’s first ever Special Economic Zone. And in the middle of this burgeoning metropolis of multinational corporations and over ten million people is where New Zealand’s slickest digital agency is dipping its creative toes into uncharted waters.

Describing it as a “portfolio in physical form”, Resn (no ‘I’) has created the Shenzhen Labs, a semi-permanent installation that features five projects based on adaptations and 'directors cuts' of past Resn projects. The Labs are a first for Resn, taking around three months to come to fruition from first pen to paper, and another three weeks to get the project running on the ground “Resn Labs is a whole experience put together as a journey,” says executive producer Jonathan Hawke, having recently returned from a trip to Shenzhen. “The Lab is about taking the experience out of the web interactive space and bringing it into the physical space.”

One of the projects is based on an interactive website it designed for Subaru. Featuring an innovative interface based on the rings of a tree, the site was commissioned to raise awareness of Subaru's environmental history. It’s a smooth, polished and tactile experience, one that can now be enjoyed offline. “We added touch screens, an ambient soundtrack and surrounded them with a forest made out of recycled corrugated cardboard,” says Hawke. “As you walk into this space, you see a beautifully-lit, dappled forest where you're presented these stories about Subaru's environmental commitment.”

But even as Resn jostles for a spot in China’s burgeoning market, setting up a model showroom all seems a bit far flung for a company that thrives in the virtual. After all, wouldn’t a link or two to its array of stylish websites do the same trick? “One of the real opportunities we see at the moment is the merging of physical and digital worlds and we’re excited by what we see developing in this space internationally,” explains Hawke.

Boasting offices on three continents, Resn is about to add a fourth to its tally when it officially sets up shop in China later this year. It’s come a long way since 2004 when managing director Rik Campbell and creative director Steve Le Marquand founded the company in Wellington, where Resn is still based. It wasn’t long before it stretched its creative arms out to the world and, in 2008, the company swept up a flurry of design accolades in the United States. From there, the work just kept rolling in.

With a knack for the interactive, Resn’s websites are like moving organisms. Animations respond to the touch of a mouse, interactive games become short-term addictions, and shapes swirl and tessellate on their own accord. Having been born in the heydays of Flash, Resn has gone through numerous technological phases since then. With the rise of the smartphone, website designers had to adapt to a post-Flash world as HTML became the standard again.

But technology, as we all know, is a rapidly changing beast. New innovations have emerged that cater to both the immersive experience of a desktop browser and the compact experience of a handheld mobile. WebGL, for example, is a Javascript programming interface that renders 3D graphics. “From a technology standpoint, it’s amazing what we can do with mobile now,” says Hawke. “Ubiquitous internet isn't just a buzzword anymore. The internet really is everywhere and in everything.”

These days, there’s a new buzzword, virtual reality, and as it expands into China and the physical installation market, VR is promising interesting things for an already highly interactive agency like Resn. “I think VR’s reached a maturity now where we're able to use it appropriately,” says Hawke. “Not everything has to have a VR component, but it’s an incredible new tool that we can call on.”  

“It’s really exciting to see VR coming of age,” says account director James Moir, the latest recruit to the Resn gang. “It’s not so much now about replicating a reality. It’s about creating a new reality and thinking about how brands can express their values and tell great stories in this new medium.” After all, if you can create anything, why would you want to create what you already have?

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