Near Real Ltd is an Oulu-based tech company and TaikaBox’s partner within the TechArt project (funded by the Council of Oulu Region). Together we combine art and technology finding new ways to innovate performance. We have been lucky to create a digital/live hybrid system to produce and perform Føddur Gamal – the Faroese version of TaikaBox’ Kalevala-based performance Born Old

Near Real chief operating officer and chairman of the board Jarmo Mikkola discusses ways of combining high-tech and contemporary art that would benefit both parties – and the wider communities. 

TaikaTalk: How do you feel about business collaborating with cultural organizations and tech being combined with art? How did you get to that point and what are the aspirations so far?

Jarmo Mikkola: John was the driver and we were on the backseat, yet now it looks very promising and is opening new horizons for us we wouldn’t have opened ourselves. I am really excited to see how technology and our services are used in the arts’ context in the end.

Behind the scenes was that somebody from the Near Real team met John at a health tech event in Oulu a few years ago and they talked through ideas, yet our first response was that we are always extremely busy doing what we can in the healthcare sector to help organizations meet their patients online in an innovative way.

But John was persistent, and I agreed to participate in the application for the TechArt project, it succeeded and – it felt good: we easily found ways to collaborate, distinguish the core needs and think of possible solutions.

What is out there on that horizon – any specific goals, or are you more concentrated on the research process currently?

In the arts context – as well as other contexts – we’ve all been focusing a lot on digitalization. It would be wrong to say that our research now is only about digitalization, where the contact and the operations remain the same. No, we like to do things in a different way with technology. Although we are not experts in a particular domain, we like working with experts of different domains to be able to do totally new things or old things, but in an absolutely new way…

Near Real is about feeling connected in spite of distance: you make it possible for anyone to reach anyone – whether it is the context of healthcare, fitness, child welfare, consulting, house design, and now – arts. How did you develop this philosophy into a business? What is the story behind Near Real’s creation?

We realized the new technology enables communication between people and/or organizations in a way that is very easy, secure and of high quality. Then we started thinking, who would need it most. The first business idea was a portal where individuals or organisations could share something for free or for charge – everyone has some kind of talent or interest that might be attractive to someone else. Someone is good at cooking, someone knows exactly how to repair motorcycles. The portal would allow to sell or give for free something you know how to do – maybe also learn how to play the piano…

The technology we are working with enables us to do that easily without installing any apps or using specific devices. However, we soon realized that making a nation-wide or global portal would take too much resources and budgets (to make this portal also known) so it’s not an easy way to start. So we made a list of sectors which would use the option. And started with healthcare.

Within healthcare there are many situations when you need to talk to a professional without touching or taking a laboratory test – just to talk. It doesn’t seem good that you have to travel and wait for hours in a lobby. If we cover security, quality and easy-to-use issues in that sector, everything else will follow, we thought. And it worked – we quite successfully exist for over six years now…

What were those things missing in the common tools the mass audience has been using all along the way – messengers, Skype, Zoom, etc. – which you decided to create and which then turned into being the core of your business?

First years we heard so many times: ”Isn’t this just another Skype”? We haven’t heard it in many years so far, in fact, especially in the healthcare sector. Perhaps it’d be easier to answer with an example – let’s use the healthcare experience for that. Our technology allows us to enrich interaction with the patient with a stethoscope for examining the heart and otoscope for examining the ear – it is much more than just a video and audio stream. Currently we are researching ways of using a normal webcam that would help a doctor analyze your pulse (we are also guilty of joking that a doctor plus Near Real equals super doctor). Using artificial intelligence makes things possible even while using a normal webcam. The same kind of elements can be used in arts!

I’ve recently had a conversation about streaming cultural events in Oulu, bringing the stream to a new level. For example, you are attending an opera online and you can easily order champagne to put into your fridge…

Maybe the champagne idea can be used in different sectors you are dealing with.

Absolutely.

Jokes apart, you did prioritize healthcare in your business. And one of the niches of your work is dedicated to digitizing services for the refugee social integration. This is one of the signs of socially aware business – which naturally brings you to collaborating with the culture sector in the end. It was so not common just some years ago, when the social responsibility of business was a trait of the few pioneers. How have you chosen this policy, do you feel yourselves as outsiders and what are the challenges and tendencies, in your perspective?

The main trigger here is the confidence that we should talk more freely. And I feel like I should say it out loud that although we make business, we don’t aim to benefit from the refugees, rather offer tools for refugees to be able to act freely in society. A few years ago Finland – especially Northern Finland – had quite a high amount of refugees. We saw that there was a huge lack of resources helping refugees, one of them was interpreters and translators. If an interpreter’s time is taken by driving around, it’s not very efficient. Refugees do need interpreters to be able to handle a lot of issues! We thought we might come up with some help…

Being a political refugee myself, I find it quite a rewarding business idea.

We are businessmen having many contacts and realizing many opportunities – and we see niches with the lack of resources, where our technology can bring in help – and positive change…

You must have been quite ready for prioritizing the research on finding new ways to digitize and put in the AI elements into connection and communication by the time when the Corona came – that’s been the core idea of your company after all. The Corona reality has made everyone go online – and suddenly online became not enough. Finding new solutions to share and connect became a challenge for all sectors. How did the pandemic reality affect your business?

We had a very busy year. A lot of companies and entrepreneurs – speech therapists, for example, who are often entrepreneurs, – have turned to us, and we had to teach them to do business in a different way overnight to let them be able to do their business at all in the Corona-reality. Big companies asked for our assistance too, and we were activating our services and technologies for all of them every day, basically non-stop. We were helping them interact with their customers, also teaching them how to teach the customers to use the innovative connection.

Along the way we realized that many customers and consumers are more ready to use the new technologies than the organizations are ready to offer them actually. Corona triggered a bigger change for organizations rather than individuals…

Do you feel Corona, bringing a dramatic crisis to a lot of sectors – art in particular, because performance requires connection with the audience – was fruitful for the sector of technology? Maybe that in a way brought you to sharing those fruits with the fractured sectors?

Yes, though I still feel that technology is an enabler, not the moving force. It is never about technology, it is about art. Or healthcare. They come first, and technology is a friend and a tool – that’s what Corona has obviously showed. It also showed that the arts’ sector – as well as others – would benefit if solutions are seeked before the crisis (which doesn’t in fact have to come to encourage them to be engaged in innovative research).

The approach: ”we made it, let’s go to the technology company to make it online and virtual” seems simplistic and out of date. Installing technology into operations is something that the pandemic challenges have hopefully inspired organizations for…

What is the favourite project in Near Real’s background and what is the dream project?

You never change anything by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a system that makes the existing model obsolete. That’s how our mission would sound. So our dream is that we would have made the virtual options more attractive. Not just: ok, you can’t meet the actual doctor – meet the virtual. Rather something else, when the virtual doctor becomes more desirable. That is something we are looking forward to doing in all sectors: to make the old way of doing things obsolete or at least not so preferred, so that people start thinking: ”Why on Earth we used to do it like that?”

Oulu is going through an amazing time of connecting art and tech not just within the TechArt project but within the whole Oulu2026 context, when the combination of arts and technology is establishing and celebrating itself as the city spirit, image and cultural core. What is the desirable contribution of yours to that?

I participated in a choir for seven years. That experience is something I am looking forward to being referring to. I see different kinds of performances online where choirs can be engaged in, enriched with our technology – and the whole thing expanding into something more than just a choir performance…

Will there be champagne in the fridge arranged through artificial intelligence technology?

Yes, indeed! (all laugh) Seriously, Oulu’s cultural scene is developing forward alongside the technology sector. There is a lot of work to do together for arts and tech here. The soil is very fruitful.

Near Real on location

Jarmo Mikkola was talking with Lölä Vlasenko

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