Since the 1980s, we've been dreaming about the resplendent future of virtual reality; one day, headgear like the Oculus Rift will be used to pour immersive entertainment into our brains. No part of this dream includes corporate sponsors shellacking our vision with brand messages. But now that the technology is on the cusp of the mainstream, advertising "experiences" are at the forefront of VR development.
We shouldn't be surprised that marketers at massive brands are among the first to dive in to the technology so they can pump your mind full of their ideas. And in fairness to them, the virtual reality content they're making, especially for the Oculus Rift, is some of the most evolved and sophisticated there is.
Take for example, the Dew VR Experience. Earlier this month, the marketers at Mountain Dew invited me to Do the Dew via their new VR spot for Oculus Rift. Well, it wasn't really the marketers themselves, it was a publicity company, but either way, Mountain Dew's parent Pepsico wanted to make sure that the nerds out there knew what they were up to. As the saying goes, the syrupy swill is like ambrosia for gamers. If Oculus Rift is the next big thing in gaming entertainment, the company wants to make sure kids are slamming Dew after totes murderising their opponents.
The Dew VR Experience (imagine saying that in a DO THE DEW bro voice) is directed by skate video auteur Ty Evans, and it's useful to think of it as the interactive evolution of the rote skate video that has been produced over and over for decades. After strapping on an Oculus Rift, you're transported to Las Vegas, where you go skateboarding with a crew lead by skate superstar Paul Rodriquez. You're along for the ride as the crew rolls past iconic locations like the fountain at Caesar's Palace as well as at local skate spots like a local middle school and a flood barrier just outside the city.
Skate videos have always included ride-alongs of sorts, where you're right behind the athlete as they shred their way through a course. Virtual reality pushes it to a whole new level. For just over two minutes, you're part of the crew, and you can almost feel the sway of turns, and the concrete rumbling below your feet. You see a whole 360-degree world, and as you look every which way, the audio track you're listening to in headphones changes to match.
As I rode along with the skaters, I was actually in a room full of producers and executives, but I was oblivious to them. I felt exactly as if the VR transported me somewhere else completely for two minutes as some change. And when I was done, my heart was racing as if I'd been skating myself.
The Dew VR experience was a perfect demonstration of what makes the possibilities of virtual reality so exciting—that it happened to come from Mountain Dew is secondary to the fact that it was fucking awesome.
How to make awesome virtual reality
Oculus Rift is a new thing. It's not even properly a consumer technology yet. It's in the development stages, and the company's CEO has continually said that the delivery of anything resembling a finished product won't happen in the near future. That's much of the reason there's so little good stuff produced for Oculus Rift, and why some of the best stuff tends to be promotional rather than strictly creative. Sure some good proof-of-concept games have popped up, but everything still has the feeling of a prototype.
Moreover, the technology is so new that there's just no easy way to make good stuff. There's no off-the-shelf solution for anything that you might want to do with the tech, which means you've got to build it all from scratch. And that costs lots of cash. We'll get to the money later, but for now, consider the process of building the Dew VR Experience as emblematic of the process as a whole.
Created for Mountain Dew by New York-based digital creative agency Firstborn, every single facet of the production process basically had to be built from the ground up. The video for the experience was shot by the director who was riding a skateboard and holding a custom, 3D-printed 360 video capture rig outfitted with 12 GoPros. The GoPros are arranged in six pairs such that one camera captures the view for each eye with total coverage for 360 degrees.
The rig used to hold the 12 GoPros was custom designed and 3D-printed.
In development, though, the technology team at Firstborn realised you couldn't just use two side-by-side GoPros to capture the footage because the lenses aren't smack in the centre of the tiny action cameras; they're off to the left. To capture footage on each camera that better represents the slightly different perspective from your two eyes, Firstborn actually flipped the camera on the right upside down.
Once all the video from 12 GoPros was captured, it had all had to be stitched together using custom software, with special care taken to make sure that the seams where the footage from one set of cameras and another wouldn't fall on the places you're likely to be looking.
Indeed, every step of the development was custom built, and Firstborn had to work with outside collaborators to get it all done. It was hacked-together work that required remarkable technical creativity. But you can't escape that in the end it's advertising paid for by a huge corporation.
Pepsico is hardly alone in developing what amounts to advertising for Oculus Rift. We've seen it done by HBO to promote Game of Thrones, by Lexus to sell cars, by Marriott to "teleport" people to different potential holiday destinations, and by Paramount Pictures to promote Interstellar. That's hardly an exhaustive list of the brands that have used VR for self-promotion, and surely more and more are going to come.
Branded virtual reality is the best stuff out there precisely because these giant corporations have all the money in the world to pay to build something cool for Oculus Rift, even if there's no money to be made by selling the gadget itself. They set it up as a temporary experience somewhere, and people line up around the block to check it out. We eat it up, and write about it endlessly because, it's good, it's at the cutting edge, and there's no other virtual reality to see. Like normal humans, we're interested in the future and there is no other way to access it, so we greedily lap up the advertisements.
When Facebook bought Oculus Rift for £1.2 billion in March, it immediately raised the question of the platform's utility as a means for selling your eyeballs to advertisers and marketers. Obviously! Facebook makes its money by advertising, so why would it buy a technology company if it didn't think it could eventually leverage said technology for advertising somehow. Advertisers had already seized upon the platform, so the only question was, how far would the advertising go?
The company's CEO Mark Zuckerberg even underscored the marketing possibilities in the investor call immediately after announcing the deal to purchase Oculus:
But gaming is just the start. After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court-side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, consulting with a doctor face to face, or going shopping in a virtual store where you can touch and explore the products you're interested in, just by putting on goggles in your own home.
Zuckerberg grasped the potential of virtual reality in the ways that we really want to see it: as enlightening and entertaining content that's ambitious and optimistic—that gives us more than we had before. But Zuck's a businessman as much as he's an ambitious technologist, and he's obviously keenly aware that putting content in you face is a great way to sell stuff.
What kind of (virtual) future do we want?
I've said it already, but it's worth repeating that the technical aspects of what brands are building for Oculus are impressive, but there is no escaping that it's just advertising, and not a fully realized creative vision.
For all its technical merits, the Dew VR EXPERIENCE is just as cynical as any other advertisement out there. You're not being banged over the head with Mountain Dew, but it's there, being casually slugged on the Las Vegas strip by well-compensated skateboarders. Could anything be more antithetical to extreme sports than Mountain Dew? Mountain Dew is soda and soda is poison. Do I even need to qualify a statement like that any more? If you want to be a good athlete and really experience skateboarding, as opposed to virtually experience skateboarding, you should stay as far away as possible from Mountain Dew.
It's advertising's job to sell you on a fantasy narrative about what a particular product or service can offer you. And that's no fault of Mountain Dew's. Advertising, marketing, and commerce will almost certainly be a facet of our virtual reality future. Media runs on advertising dollars and that's true on the blog you're reading right now as much as it is on television, and it will probably be true on Oculus Rift.
The ultimate reason we haven't seen virtual reality do much more than some advertisements and some rudimentary game demos is that building good virtual reality is expensive. Mountain Dew declined to reveal the cost of the Dew VR Experience, but the the HBO project we wrote about earlier reportedly cost in the ballpark of $1.5 million (£932,000) to produce. While that's a pretty standard price for a corporate advertisement, it's outrageous to think that developers or independent creatives would shell out that much to make a virtual reality project when there isn't even a consumer version of the technology yet. How would they ever make their money back?
With brands, the problem isn't so much that the content isn't good, it's that having a brand involved is always going to colour the output. (Consider how likely you are to trust or even click on a sponsored post on this blog, as opposed to one we've dreamed up ourselves.) I don't hate that the forefront of VR is advertising. It would just be cool if there was something more ambitious than advertising.
There are inklings of hope. Besides the aforementioned game experiments we've heard about, creative devs are working on more interesting content. In early November, the first movie for Oculus Rift, Zero Point, will be released. If that content is good, it'll be evidence that we're closer to realising a creative vision for Oculus. And hopefully it is, because using some of this decade's most exciting tech to slurp down ads is starting to get boring.
All photos by Nick Stango, except Facebook image by Michael Hession