The Virtual Reality Gold Rush

Framestore and UNIT9’s VR experts on how brands can secure a future in VR advertising.

In the 1930s science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum dreamt up the possibility of “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” – a set of goggles that put the wearer inside a fictional reality with all five senses. This is the first time anyone had considered the possibility of virtual reality. Since then it’s enchanted us in our future ponderings, from the Star Trek holodeck to the Cyberspace of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

But VR remained in the domain of science fiction for almost 80 years. That is until the Oculus Rift slammed into the tech scene in 2012. Crowdfunded to the tune of $2.4million by almost 10,000 geeks around the world, the Oculus Rift Development Kit 1 marked the moment when the new medium jolted to life.

A headset that immerses its wearer in a 3D virtual world, it's clear to anyone who’s tried it on that this technology will have a profound effect on visual media. We may even be witnessing the dawn of a new medium, some believe.

Since the famous crowdfunding campaign Facebook has acquired Oculus Rift for $2billion and all the big tech companies have been brewing up their own consumer headsets to put on the market. With various releases promised, 2015 looks to be the year normal people, not just tech geeks, start owning VR headsets.

Of course the advertising industry has been watching this new field closely and many of the techier companies have been experimenting with every new bit of hardware and software they can. Post production and VFX giants Framestore and future-facing production company UNIT9 are two such entities, and have even been bold enough to each launch dedicated VR departments.

“It’s a no-brainer,” says Karl Woolley, of Framestore Digital, VR & Immersive Content Studio. “As soon as someone hacks the Kinect you get one. As soon as Lead Motion comes out you get one. You play with it.”

It’s the responsibility of companies like Framestore to get to know the tech because so many brands are now coming to them to jump on the VR bandwagon. And it’s still pretty fair to call it that. “They’ve jumped on this like nothing else,” says Karl. “I think there are some brands that it naturally fits with and some you have to work harder to have an experience that works.”

Henry Cowling, Head of UNIT9 VR, agrees that the medium’s still a got a whiff of gimmickry about it. “At the moment a lot of interest from brands [comes from a desire] to do the first, the biggest or the best work in this space,” he says. Although it’s understandable, this attitude is disappointing to people like him and Karl, who believe VR is destined for much more. “It’s this kind of Wild West territory where you can go in and make big claims and do defining projects,” says Henry. Karl calls it a “gold rush.”

And it seems there really will be gold once brands find the right use for VR. “It’s going to be big enough, rich enough and varied enough that it’s going to stand up in its own right,” predicts Henry. “We’ll be reaching a time very soon where brands aren’t just doing VR for VR’s sake. Right now the killer application of VR is up for grabs. There’s some really good work but the genre defining thing that’s going to set the bar hasn’t been done yet.”

That’s no great surprise. Most VR departments have only existed for a year or so. And it’ll take some time to create the structures that will build this new medium. Companies need to assemble teams to help them reach that post-gimmickry golden age. And recruiting isn’t straightforward. You can’t go out and find a VR Game Developer with substantial experience because nobody does that job yet.

Telling a story in VR takes a new blend of skills. “It’s taking filmmaking’s lights, camera and sound,” explains Karl, “but combining it with storytelling in the way that game designers have been doing it for 20 or 30 years.” For example, you can’t frame up a shot in an all-encompassing environment, so no close-ups to draw the audience’s attention. In VR you must use the visual and audio cues of game design to guide audiences.

Clearly, the medium is still in its infancy and Karl and Henry would be the first to agree there’s a long way to go. With the major headsets yet to hit the consumer market, let alone at an affordable price, it isn’t exactly far reaching.

“The market’s quite tiny,” says Karl. From a brand perspective, where their primary interest is numbers of eyeballs, its appeal is limited. “At the moment they’re getting the eyeballs because of the press around this work that we’re doing.” For now, it’s confined to installations with powerful computers and 4D experiences. In the future, this is likely to change.

“The best case scenario is that we have a big market penetration of [VR] and consumers are using this stuff,” says Henry. “And developers and makers in general have their hands on it and are able to tinker with the software.” He thinks that ultimately the most exciting developments are likely to come from bedroom enthusiasts. “We’re at the forefront of it right now, but still the most interesting stuff is going to happen when it’s out there in the hands of the masses. There are going to be applications that we can’t even conceive right now.”

The role brands will play in VR breaking through will be secondary to this, as Henry sees it. “I think what brands are particularly adept at doing, when they behave boldly, is taking stuff that’s culturally relevant, looking at indie examples and saying ‘how do we bring our money and resources to this? How do we make this better and amplify it?’”

To get there, people who know VR will first have to educate brands and agencies. And that’s exactly what Framestore and UNIT9 are doing.

“It’s getting this stuff in the hands of creatives and brands,” says Henry, “so that they can figure it out and the limitations are apparent.” Once people know the borders they can work within them. But the only practical way is to get headsets on people and demonstrate the technology. “Showing people a case study video of VR always looks and feels flat. The experience is so much more dynamic when you’re in it.”

For brands who want to be the first to nail VR content, there are a few points they should be aware of. For now, the central limitation is the disconnect between what you see and what you feel. “The paradox of VR,” says Henry, “is that you put a headset on and then you’re in an environment [where] everything looks real, so you expect to be able to interact with it in a real way.” As of yet, you usually can’t.

When Henry showed the Occulus Rift to his mother she immediately got up and started walking around. Of course, she stayed still in the virtual environment and was confused. He had to hand her a joystick to move around. This is awkward, and in many situations VR creatives have to work around worse - some experiences can cause terrible motion sickness.

The natural tensions in VR mostly come down to the question of how to interact with a virtual experience in a more physical way. But there are answers to this.

Firstly, you can limit VR to a purely passive, visual experience. Henry admits that while 4D experiences with vibrating floors, controlled temperatures and the like are great, “even if you strip all that stuff away, the core experience of just having a headset on and being in a place is such a powerful way to do storytelling. Even if you’re not moving around in that environment – it’s just a story unfolding around you – it already really excites me and everything else is just gravy.”

Karl cites Felix & Paul Studios’ work on the introduction experience packaged with Samsung’s Gear VR, where you simply sit in a Mongolian yurt. “In some ways it’s much better than any of the other work we’ve done, because it’s believable.”

On paper this may sound dull, he admits, but he’s confident that if clients could experience it with the headset on they’d understand. Again, it’s just getting headsets on heads.

Another tack clients could take is the exhilarating stuff – driving fast cars, running through futuristic environments, flying through the sky. Those are harder because of the physical aspect requiring additional technology. It’s all about delivering ‘haptic feedback’ – some kind of physical experience to compliment the visual.

There are many ways to approach this. Moving floors, mist, smells pumped in an temperature control can be used to great effect, as both companies’ work has proved. “The thing is to try and make [sure] that anything your brain thinks you’re doing, your body feels it’s doing as well,” says Karl.

Depending on budget and the technology available, all of these can be very effective because the sense of presence they provide is unparalleled by any other medium.

To achieve the immersion clients want, every sense can be simulated with the right tech, and arguably the most vital sense, after vision, is sound. “Because what you’re seeing looks real, you expect other stuff to be real,” says Henry. “If the sound is not behaving in a real way you get a disconnection that just deflates the experience.”

The final tip for making VR work is a golden rule – make it larger than life. “If you can do it for real, whatever you’re doing in VR’s got to be a step beyond,” says Karl, “Otherwise what’s the point?” Nobody wants to create an experience of test-driving a car when for the same budget you could do it for real.

In 2015 we’re likely to get much more familiar with VR, and maybe it will stop being a tech gimmick. When it does, Henry and Karl agree that it will be down to storytelling. “How it performs as a storytelling medium defines whether it’s going to live or die,” says Henry. And if VR suddenly jolts to life in the next few years, companies like Framestore and UNIT9 will be part of it.
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