Greatness doesn’t just happen – it evolves over time. When faced with a hard deadline of Nike’s 50th anniversary, Melbourne’s AKQA Studios’ Innovation team truly rose to a level of greatness when it created Never Done Evolvinga multi-award-winning sensory experience that its team members may describe as a ‘data virtualisation project,’ but in reality is so much more.

Conceived as a way to pay homage to Serena Williams and her 25+ year professional playing career, the project evolved to become a masterpiece of design and technology that takes statistical data to new heights to present an immersive and entertaining visual narrative of Serena’s playing journey in a way that excites, educates and evokes emotional responses.

Beyond the brief: Exploring & dissecting what could be possible

AKQA in São Paulo had a long-standing working relationship with Nike, so when they received the original project brief, they instinctively reached out to their colleagues in Melbourne – who not only had a prolific background in creative digital design solutions for tennis – the 2021 VPDA winning Action Audio – but an entire Innovation team that was keen to collaborate and extend the rather fluid brief to create something truly special. Their approach was a little different, always looking at the latest and greatest in academia and artistic practice. Starting with the brief, everyone in the team remained open, curious and selfless – focused on developing the optimal way to virtuallycommunicate Serena’s evolution as a player.

‘Working collectively and quite radically in some ways, we deliberately slow down the exploration and design process at the beginning so we can all move together – which from the outside might look inefficient – but it allows us to be much more efficient when making decisions,’ commented Adam Grant, Innovation Director at AKQA Melbourne.

‘Fundamental to this and our other projects is our way of working across multiple disciplines and sensibilities to create a collaborative expression of our mutual skills and imagination,’ he added.

People as the essence of ground-breaking digital design

A distinguishing feature of the Innovation team – made up of 5 highly talented individuals – is a dominance in design, with strong interest in sustainability and environmental issues. The team credits its success on its foundation of sharing knowledge from different directions with a long arc that allows for overlapping design processes.

Adam has a multi-disciplined design background, having worked as a creative in the advertising industry and also as a practitioner who blended his foundation in the sciences with installation art.

His teammate and colleague Jaehyun Shin (Jae) is AKQA’s Associate Data Science Director. As a machine learning and data science specialist with a PhD in Robotics, Jae uses AI and applies it emotionally in the marketing space. His transition from academia to telling real stories that connect with audiences on a deep and personal level is something he loves about his work.

‘Like our client Nike, innovation is in our DNA. Never Done Evolvingis indicative of the type of work we do, taking briefs that aren’t set in stone or creating an entirely new brief, exploring possibilities that cross different terrains to achieve something the client may never have envisioned was possible,’ said Adam.

Constraints & challenges as the stepping-stones to greatness

Time was perhaps the team’s greatest constraint. With 130,000 hours of live-play footage from dozens of broadcast sources, efficiencies were critical. Rather than allocating tasks and splitting up the job on day one, the team came together and focused on what it was that they wanted to do and why.

Never Done Evolving differed from AKQA’s previous data virtualisation projects due to the sheer volume of data. It was vital to develop the most time-efficient technique for collecting the data.

‘The simulation did take longer than we originally planned. Building on the Vid2player platform we created an original methodology in the form of a new tool that leveraged edge computing to detect each position, play and ball placement in every match Serena played,’ said Jae.

‘In particular, some low-resolution broadcast quality meant that AI couldn’t detect the data, so there was still a significant amount of laborious manual data entry to achieve the desired result,’ he added.

Even so, the total development time was less than 2 months to produce a live virtual match – complete with sound effects, commentators and technical analysis – between Serena from different eras in her career. Taking Serena’s likeness and applying a new silhouette ‘stripped’ her of add-onfeatures and reapplied textures to distinguish first-time Grand Slam champion ‘1999 Serena’ from the maturer and mentally tougher final Grand Slam winning ‘2017 Serena.’ Style transfer flattened out the visuals and made them consistent.

Global collaboration across agencies and the client

While the core technical aspects were developed and brought to life by the AKQA Melbourne team, the entire design process from inception to release was collaborative with interstitial aspects and bookends to what was delivered to Nike created by the São Paulo and Portland teams.

‘Ours is a business built on the strength of relationships and trust. Heightened brand knowledge is really important when working with a client like Nike but Serena was our most important stakeholder in this project. Every stage of the process was shared with her in a challenging cross-schedule, cross-time zone environment,’ highlighted Adam.

Digital design: storytelling brought to life

The ultimate aim of Never Done Evolving was to tell a specific story – communicating the way in which Serena’s game changed and evolved over the span of her professional tennis career. But the way it resonates with the public, Serena’s fans and a wider global audience is far broader. In its simplified form, it is a narrative that visually expresses the special quality that elite athletes possess, the way they develop their bodies and minds to remain competitive and what it takes to stay dominantand become ‘the greatest of all time (GOAT).’

People connect with Never Done Evolving and in addition to it being a momentous way to mark Serena’s retirement and Nike’s 50th anniversary, it has wider applications to become an instructional guide for sports analytics, a training tool and an inspiration to the next generation of Serenas. Until now, audiences have been denied access to this type of information, so this project sets a benchmark for what is possible using adaptive AI-powered design technology.

‘We tend to think of greatness in terms of a statistic. But it is much more complex than that, and this project and the technology we applied to bring it to life allowed us to open our minds to the possibilities this technology serves up,’ Adam explained.

Awards as a celebration of the collective contribution

Never Done Evolving has been lauded worldwide. It has won the Grand Prix de Digital Craft at Cannes 2023, 2 Gold Clios in the Artificial Intelligence and Digital categories, a Silver Clio in the Athlete Storytelling category and a Bronze Clio for the Creative Use of Data. But winning the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards (VPDA) in the Digital Design category is especially sweet for the Melbourne-based team.

‘Being awarded a VPDA is something that we take serious notice of. There is so much good stuff happening in the design and technology community here, so being recognised amongst the highest calibre of digital design projects is especially humbling, remarked Adam.

‘Winning this award demonstrates how good it is to work with such an incredible team. Personally, as an immigrant, I often feel foreign, but this award especially has integrated me into our Melbourne design community and made me even prouder of my contribution,’ Jae concluded.