Nick Bolton: Perpetual motion for OMG chief
Heading up this Oxford-based technology group, he has seen its reach extend beyond films and games
Thursday 23 December 2010
The eyeball-scorching neon of Tron: Legacy blazed straight in at number one at the British box office after opening on Friday. While some criticised the storyline, fans were wowed by the blockbuster's spectacular special effects which served to flesh out the computer landscape of "The Grid".
One of the stand out set pieces, the life-or-death Light Cycle duel, was only possible with the technology of an AIM-listed company based in Oxford which has just enjoyed a record-breaking year. OMG (a reference to Oxford Metrics Group rather than texting slang) uses three dimensional mapping technology for a series of clients, and is used in many of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. Its motion capture – or "mo-cap" in industry lingo – can also be seen in recent release The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the forthcoming Jack Black vehicle, Gulliver's Travels.
OMG "smashed expectations" when it announced its full-year results in September, according to Evolution Securities analyst Philip Sparks. It reported revenues up a fifth at £31.2m and pre-tax profits almost trebling to £3.2m. The technology company's chief executive, Nick Bolton, is bullish about 2011. His optimism can be traced to the diversity of a business that goes beyond Jeff Bridges' computerised dream world to the defence sector, road mapping and video games. And it remains strong in the roots of the business: healthcare.
OMG was formed from a management buy out of the medical devices arm of Oxford Instruments in 1984, led by Julian Morris, who remains deputy chairman. It started with two products, a back scanner and a bit of kit called Vicon – short for video converter – which it used to understand the biomechanics of the body.
Mo-cap involves recording the movement of subjects wearing suits covered in reflective spheres, and translating the data into a three dimensional digital image that can be manipulated. "The principle is essentially the same today, although we are now on generation seven of the technology," Mr Bolton said, adding that the earliest technology had "a tenth of the resolution of the worst mobile phone screens today".
In 1990, OMG focused on clinical gait analysis for children with cerebral palsy, which tripled turnover and put "almost all of its rivals out of business", Mr Bolton said. A year before he joined, the group noticed that a US rival, Motion Analysis Corporation, was doing deals in the film and games industries. Mr Bolton said: "OMG realised they were losing business in a market they didn't know they were competing in. That opportunity was already there. That often happens, and you just have to be ready to respond to that." In 1995, the company recruited him to build its entertainment arm.
Mr Bolton's background was in computing. He grew up in Cambridge, where his father was a lecturer, and remembers always being around computers like the Commodore PET. Rather than programming them, he said, "I played Space Invaders non-stop."
Graduating from Manchester University just days after Black Wednesday in 1992, he moved into the computing industry. "I've always been excited about the benefits technology can bring, rather than the technology itself," he said. One of the first major contracts Mr Bolton worked on was an advert for Munch Bunch yoghurts. "I was there putting markers on the people, calibrating the system," he said. The first film to use OMG's mo-cap, The Borrowers, followed shortly after.
The company set up a second division, 2d3, at the turn of the century, with a new special-effects kit to allow "match moving". It was first put to use in Gladiator, when Russell Crowe strides into the Coliseum. OMG's mo-cap also filled out the crowd.
Yet, by that stage, Mr Bolton had left to join Micromuse, set up by Christopher Dawes, the dot.com millionaire who died in a car crash in 1999. With money made at the management software company, he left to set up his own venture, Lexicle, with four others, spending the rest of his cash on a 3 Series BMW. He still has the beemer, but the venture quickly turned sour.
He said: "The mistakes I made were absolutely daft. It was a nasty break-up. I drove down from York, stopped in a Little Chef, and wrote down the 100 things I would never do again. I still keep the blue book."
Mr Bolton returned to OMG in 2005, as the company hit a rough patch, missing its forecasts of over £9m revenues by half. Following the death of a former mentor, and with his mother seriously ill, he was in "no mood to waste time" when he was handed the job of fixing the company just months later.
Part of his strategy was to diversify, and OMG's 2d3 arm moved into defence after it was approached by Qinetiq. While it remains the smallest division, turning over £1.2m last year, Mr Bolton said: "2d3 is in a really exciting place because this idea of intelligence from video is recognised, and we are recognised as one of the leading tech players in that space. It could have a great break-out year." Subsequently he oversaw the launch of a third arm, Yotta, taking the technology to UK roads which secured a series of local authority contracts.
In entertainment, video games remain big business – several times its revenue from film – and OMG has a hand in most of the top-selling games of the year, including Call of Duty: Black Ops, which yesterday broke the $1bn sales barrier.
Gaming houses tend to buy systems, rather than renting them as movie studios do at the group's Los Angeles space, the House of Moves. "We own the games space now," Mr Bolton said, although he added that the industry was some way off its 2006 peak. As its reach extends, the group has also won a contract to animate the characters created by comic book legend Stan Lee for the National Hockey League teams.
Mr Bolton said: "All the businesses have decent growth opportunities next year. We play in all of these different markets in all of these different geographies because there are different biorhythms to each one. We don't expect them all to perform brilliantly each year, but hopefully enough of them do – which means we deliver a growing business."
Nick Bolton CV
* Married with two children
* Has an MEng in engineering, manufacture and management from the University of Manchester.
1995 Joins Oxford Metrics as product manager after responding to an advert.
1999 Leaves for Micromuse and shortly after sets up Lexicle, which ends badly as he falls out with partners.
2002 Joins Mediasurface.
2005 Rejoins OMG and is appointed chief executive shortly after.
* Unsurprisingly, Mr Bolton is a big film fan. "Film of the year? 'Inception'," he says. "It's just tremendous."
* He has an interest in architecture, citing David Chipperfield as a favourite: "His big thing is that form matters."
* Likes sport, supports Chelsea FC.
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