Technically Human Podcast: Episode 4
August 23, 2016
Virtual reality is gaining traction, but the field still feels a little bit like the next frontier. While VR tech companies are working to bring VR to the masses, marketing agencies are working on two fronts: educating brands on the unique challenges and opportunities of using this immersive technology and attempting themselves to use VR as a communication and creative tool in their client-agency relationship toolkit. Today on Technically Human, we’re talking with motion graphics and VR pros about creating VR experiences for clients and consumers alike.
Katie Cantu: Hi there, I’m Katie Cantu, strategist at Ignite Partnership.
Mike Covert: I’m Mike Covert, founder of Ignite Partnership.
Katie: You‘re listening to “Technically Human,” where marketing experts talk about how to find the soul in technology products and services. What really makes humans tick when it comes to tech? Join us on our cultural expedition to find out.
This week on Technically Human, we’re diving into the wonderful world of virtual reality. As an agency that specializes in marketing for technology companies, interest in VR is something we’re seeing more and more of from our clients. There are still so many unknowns about the platform.
In fact, it’s fair to say that the technology is still evolving so much that there really aren’t any experts in this space yet. From technical tidbits to user limitations, today, we’ll address some of the most common questions and challenges we’ve encountered when it comes to creating VR experiences for brands.
But before we get down to business, we have one of my favorite colleagues filling in for Mike Covert today. I am thrilled to introduce you guys to Mike Martin, our senior motion designer at Ignite Partnership.
Mike Martin: Hello.
Katie: Mike, you want to tell us a little bit about what you do at Ignite?
Mike Martin: As you said, I’m the senior motion designer for Ignite Partnership. I create digital media, specializing in video production and motion graphics. I do a lot of work for Samsung.
Katie: Perfect. Also joining us, we have quite possibly the closest thing to a VR expert, Dale, welcome to Technically Human. Thanks for joining us today.
Dale Carman: Good morning. Glad to be here.
Katie: Dale Carman is the executive creative director at Groove Jones here in Dallas. They’re a studio that specializes in creating immersive content and applications. Right now, they specialize in virtual reality.
They’ve created some stellar experiences for brands like McDonald’s and MasterCard. We’ve had the privilege of partnering with them recently on a couple of projects. Am I leaving anything out, Dale?
Dale: It’s a real exciting time in VR, so every new project is groundbreaking. [laughs]
Katie: Let’s get down to it.
Mike Martin: Yeah, let’s do this.
Katie: I think most of our listeners are somewhat familiar with VR at this point, but I’m always curious to hear, especially from other people in the industry or in marketing, what first got them into the technology. What was your first experience like with VR? Dale, what made you fall in love with VR?
Dale: I am an artist first and a storyteller, and then I’m just a nerd for technology. Ultimately it’s always about a search to try to make my job as an artist and storyteller easier, better, and faster. I stumbled across Oculus whenever they did their very first Kickstarter. I call it the new dawn of virtual reality.
A lot of people think that virtual reality is new, but it’s actually been around for at least 30 years, maybe 50 years. It’s always been in the hands of NASA, the government, MIT, and Lockheed and really inaccessible and inapproachable—just crazy expensive.
When Oculus did their Kickstarter and made the first development kit available for $300+, it just caused this tipping point, this firestorm of making it accessible to literally anyone. One of the very first ways that I used it was for a client.
I was doing this piece for a client out of Florida—a Ford client—for one of those banners in a stadium that goes around the stadium. Whenever you’re designing something like that, if you look at it on an iPad or you look at it on a laptop, even if you project it to a large screen in a studio or a suite, it’s just kind of impossible to read.
It’s super thin and tiny. I didn’t want to just have one that repeated. I wanted to have a complex design that used the whole space, so I had to show it to them in its entirety. It just...
Katie: It’s underwhelming when it’s flat.
Dale: I had this client coming in, and so I quickly threw together a scene with the stadium and mapped the ribbon graphic to the stadium so that when the client came in, I handed them a headset. They put it on, and they’re standing on the 50‑yard line of the field.
They’re able to look around and see it playing back. It was incredible. It totally, totally worked, even in those early days. I kept, from that point on, just finding more and more uses for it.
Katie: Yeah, that’s an excellent use case early on, the ability to actually put your client in the stadium and show them the creative the way it was meant to be viewed. That’s a good one. What about you, Mike Martin? Anything stand out in particular? You’re a design guy as well.
Mike Martin: Yeah, I’m a design guy. I’m also a video game nerd. From an early age, I actually remember—I might have been maybe seven or eight years old—they had an arcade set up inside Six Flags. It was actually a virtual reality arcade. You go in, and you’re in this sewer system. You’re shooting whatever monster is down there.
Katie: Ninja Turtles.
Mike Martin: Right, probably Ninja Turtles. To me, that was such a thrilling experience, because I had never seen anything like that. As a kid playing a normal console at home, you only had so many graphics at your disposal anyway. It was really cool to get that head tracking experience, and seeing it from that point of view was always very interesting to me.
Katie: Yeah, we could spend hours on this podcast today talking about the technical elements of this platform—all of the limitations and the opportunities. From a high level, off the top of your head, what are some of the things, Dale, that you hear…[when] clients come to you. You’ve worked on some great projects for McDonald’s, American Horror Story. When these brands come to you for an experience, what are some of the hurdles you encounter? I know we’ve encountered a couple recently in our partnership together, but what are some of the most common things you hear?
Dale: This is one of those technologies—it used to happen to me in the early days of animation and computer graphics—[that] people don’t understand what’s involved and what it takes to create this stuff, and there’s sort of, ironically, an immediate perception that it’s easier than it is.
I used to call it the Dateline: State of the Art syndrome. You’d have a client that, on Sunday night, would watch Dateline: State of the Art, see how something was made, and in 30 seconds they would show, “They shot at a green screen, and then they composited it with the computer graphics.” It was just like boom, boom, magically done.
Katie: I want a commercial that looks like Lord of the Rings.
Dale: Exactly. Whenever Toy Story was first done, we would have people come in and say, “You know, something like Toy Story.” It would be like, ‘OK, that took a hundred people four years and $30 million.”
Katie: State of the art technology!
Mike Martin: A lot of computers!
Dale: Yeah. You can’t do that. We have to educate people on, “OK, this is what’s involved with doing that.” Virtual reality leverages, for a lot of its uses, real time rendering, but what a lot of people don’t realize is what it takes to get it to the point that now it can render real time.
Katie: Great example.
Mike Martin: I think of people assume that you’re going to be able to do anything in these virtual spaces, and they don’t understand the actual limitations of the technology.
Katie: Talk to us a little bit about the differences in those, because this is where I think people are like, “I know what VR is,” especially our audience—[they’re] savvy, [they’re] marketers, they’re familiar with the technology, but when it comes down to actually creating that experience, I know I’m one of those people…I look to guys like you to say, “What can we do here? What are our limitations?”
Dale: It’s probably useful to explain…there’s really, I would say, four types of use. There’s tethered PC, which is a high-end gaming computer running a Vive or an Oculus Rift, typically doing it on a real-time engine like a Unity or Unreal Engine.
Then there is mobile technology, like Gear VR, that’s high resolution, high quality, high quality head tracking. Then there’s Google Cardboard-based VR that will run on many more phones. It’s typically cardboard or what I call plastic cardboard. Then there is YouTube 360 and Facebook 360.
There’s all of those types, and they’re very different. Then the other two significant differences is on the tethered PC technology you have positional tracking, which is really huge for the sense of immersion and the sense of presence, because every little movement that your head makes is tracked in the 3D space, so you really feel like you’re there.
Mike Martin: I think that’s what most users are going to think that they’re going to get.
Mike Martin: They expect to feel that when you look around a corner, your head will position that way, but that’s not how the rest of the VR works, correct?
Dale: Correct. The mobile technology, there’s no positional tracking yet. A lot of people are working hard to make it happen, but there’s no positional tracking yet. It’s interesting because a lot of people will put on a mobile headset and they’ll think they’re getting positional tracking.
They’re absolutely not getting positional tracking. And they’ll walk around thinking they’re getting it. Nothing is happening.
Katie: They’re not moving in the space.
Dale: Right. That’s a big one. One of the other little side effects of that is something I call simulation sickness. Whenever there’s no positional tracking, that’s when people sort of get nauseous. For event‑based activations, we’ll almost always try to go to an HTC Vive that has positional tracking.
We’ll have people that will be like, "Oh, I’ve done VR before. It kind of makes me sick."
Mike Martin: Yeah, but have you actually done positional tracking?
Dale: 100 percent of the time I say, "This won’t make you sick." They put it on and sure enough, they’re perfectly fine because it tracks every little movement.
Katie: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting difference to call out. I know even at the point where I had tried VR and was familiar with the platform and consider myself fairly up to speed on technology, I didn’t realize those subtle differences, especially when a brand is asking you for an experience.
Like if they’re going to walk through a haunted house, for example, that’s going to be a really different ask than just creating a 360 video if you want the person to feel like they’re in that space and have control of the environment that they’re moving around [in]. I think that’s an interesting one.
Talk to us a little bit about the cost difference. When we’re talking about a tethered experience, also, I just want to clarify—that means it’s also not something that’s going to be accessible to people at home.
When a brand is creating an experience that they think is going to be portable and that people are going to take with them somewhere else, it is actually tethered to a computer. That’s usually more at events, right?
Dale: Right. Correct. Yeah, that will be another thing that will happen as well. Part of the education process that we have to do with clients is…they’ll get excited. We’ll show them the tethered stuff. They’ll be like, "Awesome. This is incredible. And then we want this to be on Google Cardboard."
Katie: You’re like, “That doesn’t translate.” [laughs]
Dale: We need to make something different for that.
Katie: What about the cost difference between those? I mean, we’re not making any promises out here, but what’s the ballpark of creating something like a tethered experience versus something that’s a lot more accessible on Google Cardboard?
Dale: It’s interesting, because the truthful answer is…it depends on a lot of different factors: On how much we’re creating, how big of a world we’re creating. Does it have character animation, etc.? We’ve had projects with a really wide variety of budgets.
One of the things that’s sort of difficult at this stage in VR is that nobody is budgeted for it, and there’s no standard. It’s just kind of all over the place. The magic number that a lot of brands end up coming to is $250,000, because it fits in what they were going to spend for the activation and it’s kind of palatable.
We’ve had that range from $250 [thousand] to $500 [thousand] and more, and then some down to $150 [thousand] or even $100 [thousand].
Mike Martin: How would you compare that to a normal commercial spot with animation or live‑action shooting?
Dale: There’s a lot of similarities and then of course a lot of differences. That’s one thing that I’ve seen. I’ve faced this a lot in just sort of the whole digital world and digital revolution. Like in the old days the client would spend $1 million on a commercial and then he’d be like, “Oh, I want to do it. This is just for digital, so it’s going to be $40,000.”
It’s like, “Well then, what about the location and what about the actors and what about hair and makeup and what about lighting? And what about all these other things to make it look nice?”
Katie: We still have to do all of those things.
Dale: Those things are all the same. You’ve got to have talent and you’ve got to have an art department if you want that, and you’ve got to have the production design and all of those different things. I just did a piece for a car company where you have a car and we have to rig the car.
All of that stuff costs money, especially to get good people and talent and people that know what they’re doing and all that kind of stuff. Then whenever it’s live action and you add to that that you see 360 degrees, there come quite a few more complications. Number one, there is no “behind the camera.”
Katie: Yeah, the set is everything.
Dale: The set is everything, and so you have to be kind of strategic with that. Then you also have this new sort of literal...It’s actually a blessing and a curse. They can’t micromanage a take because they literally can’t watch it. They can’t see it at all.
With really all the camera technologies—and we’ve used every technology there is, with GoPros, even with the new Jaunt ONE camera—there is no live view. You can’t see it. You can do a test grab. In the case of the Jaunt camera, there’s 24 cameras that you have to manage the media and then you have to go through a stitching process to put it all together.
On that side, there’s a lot involved to make it good. Then you also have new issues with live action in particular, once you’ve shot it, and then you’ve stitched it, and now you’ve edited it, and now you need to share it with your client to view it, they really need to view it in VR.
We’ve had to really work hard and just kind of be just emphatic about, “You have to look at this in VR.” Because a lot of times they’ll look at it on their phone, or they’ll look at it on their laptop, and flat view and it looks weird.
Katie: Of course.
Mike Martin: The 360 video technology on the phones when you’re kind of moving them around in space: I know Facebook is doing this a lot. It doesn’t show what you can see in an actual VR headset.
Dale: It’s also, since we’re in live action, worth mentioning that there’s monoscopic and stereoscopic. The best experience is shooting live action stereoscopic because then you get left eye, right eye, and you get the sense of depth. That really adds to the sense of presence, and being there.
Katie: Actually being in the space.
Dale: Whenever that’s done well, it’s really effective.
Katie: Another thing, I know we’ve encountered this in working together, Dale, and this is an ongoing challenge for several of our clients I’m sure who are considering particularly something in the VR space. I think this is a little different than live action, but there’s a line about what’s on brand in virtual reality.
Because it’s so new, and you’re actively inviting a user to go to a new world and experience something. Where is that line of how to brand an experience, but still allow the user to feel like they’re escaping?
Because you drop them in this world that’s plastered with logos, and your brand color, and messaging, and that doesn’t feel like an escape from the retail environment they’re in, or wherever they are. What’s your experience in creating that line?
Dale: VR is an opportunity to have an impact. It’s the opportunity to elicit this involuntary guttural response of, “Wow,” and it becomes something that is so shareable. Again, just so impactful. It is truly a new medium where the old rules don’t work. It’s not just that they don’t apply. They don’t work.
In live action virtual reality 360, there are no lenses, and I can’t say that enough and have anybody understand, because I’ll have the client, or the agency, our director or whatever…I’ll tell him that, and then he’ll say, “OK, cool. Can we get a close‑up on this one?”
It’s like, “No.” The only way to do that is to literally get close, which then just feels super uncomfortable and super weird.
Katie: Especially in an environment where the user is not controlling that movement.
Mike Martin: You spoke earlier of nausea. That kind of comes into play with video editing as well. A traditional video edit, you’re trying to keep a person’s interest just by having fast takes and cutting different angles. You really can’t do that with VR or a 360 video.
Dale: You can, but sometimes, bad things happen. I think there’s a balance. In some of the early stuff that we worked on, there was a super hard line that Oculus laid, like you can’t move the camera, and you can’t cut. It was like, “OK...”
Katie: It’s like, “Well, that’s a little...”
Mike Martin: That’ll be a little boring.
Dale: That’s definitely safe, but our world today is just way more sophisticated than that. What it then becomes in the way that I have adopted it is that the viewer is now the co‑director, because they control what they’re looking at, and they control when they look. They control where they look, and when they look. I’ve got to involve them in the story.
We found that sometimes the simplest way is the best way. I was directing a piece for Pacific Rim and I wanted the viewer to turn their head to the right. The way that I did that was to get the voiceover talent in this case to say with spatialized audio.
It came from the left side in their head specially to say, “Hey, look over here.” It worked. They turned their head, and they looked where I wanted them to look. Then we’ll also do that with motion where we’ll lead the eye, and then we’ll cut.
We find that well, there are similar techniques, but they’re different too. One of the big things we found is just that pacing has to be different...Then just like every rule, they’re made to be broken.
I just did this piece for another property for another company that I can’t mention yet. I used crazy flutter cutting techniques, or stuff that I would do in the ‘90s. It was super effective because I wanted to make the user uncomfortable.
It’s a fun medium because it’s like, today in our traditional medium of film, and in television, and digital online viewing…it’s hard. It’s like, Michael Bay can’t have a bigger explosion. It’s like, “Destroy all of downtown,” and it’s like, “I don’t care. It just doesn’t affect me anymore.”
Katie: We’re immune to that kind of action.
Dale: Just completely numb to it all. It’s been one of the enjoyable parts of the art…I can affect people again.
Katie: There’s very much a surprise and delight element to it for sure. Let’s talk a little bit about the future of VR. We’re kind of still in this stage. Like Dale said at the beginning, it’s an exciting time. There’s a lot happening. We’re still learning a lot about this medium, and how to use it, and the capabilities of it.
I think it’s fair to say that while most people know what VR is, it’s not completely widely adopted yet. What do you think has to happen in order for this to become even bigger than it already is? What has to happen in order for this to be no big deal?
I call you up, and we’re going to have a conference call in VR, and you’re not like, “What? I don’t have a Samsung Gear. I can’t.”
Dale: I think that one of the ways it’s going to happen is with a repeat of history. We had arcades in the early days of gaming because these machines were super limited, and super expensive, and...
Katie: And huge.
Dale: ...and huge, so you had to go to an arcade to play those games. I remember how crazy it was to even think about being able to do that at home. The home versions were not as good remotely. I think we’re going to see a short period of that where we’ll see VR arcades.
The first way that that’s happening for brands is they’re doing these things at events like South by Southwest, like the Super Bowl, like the US Open, like NASCAR. These types of events where people could see something that they just can’t see normally.
We’ll start to see VR arcades, and VR installations in locations that are in the public. That’s going to start to expose and educate people to VR. Then honestly, it’s beginning now, but we’re going to start to see it more adopted.
Frankly, PlayStation’s VR is going to have a huge impact because you just plug it into your PlayStation and get to be a part of it. Just makes it more accessible.
Katie: Mike, do you have any thoughts about VR at least as a form of entertainment…where you think that’s headed, especially coming from a gaming background?
Mike Martin: Yes, actually. There’s a really interesting company out of Utah named The VOID, and they basically have built a warehouse developed strictly for gaming with VR. It’s a lot like laser tag, and essentially what they do is they map a virtual environment, and pin it one‑to‑one with the physical environment that the users are in, and they’re all wearing VR sets.
You’re essentially able to play this game of laser tag or virtual laser tag through the VR headsets. They’ve actually recently partnered with Sony Pictures in order to develop an exhibit for Madame Tussauds in New York City where they actually have a Ghostbusters-themed mission that you can run through.
It uses all the Ghostbusters characters. I think Slimer is in there. Basically, it’s using this technology that you’re running in this warehouse. I think it’s a library or something with all these ghosts flying around. It sounds like a really cool experience.
Katie: Do we think we’re ever going to hit a point where it’s just like everybody’s walking around with VR headsets like zombies not looking at their real environment?
Mike Martin: I think that could happen. We haven’t spoken about augmented reality yet, but the Microsoft HoloLens, since you actually do have visibility on the world, and the VR experience or the augmented reality experience is coming into contact with the world itself, I think that’s probably going to be happening.
Or you’re going to see somebody down the sidewalk, and they’re catching Pokémon with their face instead of with their phone.
Katie: I mean, walking the neighborhood, it’s like...I live in the East Dallas area, and I see...my husband and I are always like, "That person’s hunting Pokémon." They would never be outside. It’s just like the hipsters have been unleashed in the neighborhood. I’m looking at you, Mike Martin.
Mike Martin: I’m one of them.
Katie: The other thing that I think is interesting, we talked about VR for entertainment purposes. What about for B2B? I think there’s a lot of opportunity to use VR. Dale, you mentioned NASA’s been using it for years, but especially in the medical field, or for training purposes, have you had any experience with...?
Dale: Absolutely. We’ve been approached to do it for training projects for...We just finished a really cool project for a company—View Glass, which is an architectural company that sells dynamic glass.
This was a case where the best way for them to show potential customers was to take them to a location to see it installed. That’s not very practical. Virtual reality lets them virtually take them to a location to see it installed, and it has been so effective that their sales team is just like...
Katie: Like, can’t keep up.
Dale: “...We have to have this, and now, we have to have it for more.” It’s been fun to watch just how well it’s worked. Again, my first use of it was as a communication tool. It’s a really good communication tool. For B2B, that’s huge.
Katie: It’s perfect. I think that’s a great use case. We have a lot of clients who specialize in B2B technology, and they may be thinking this is more of an entertainment tool—“This platform isn’t right for my business.”
I think Dale, your examples of using this to showcase creative, or showcase a process, or a customer service, there’s a really unique opportunity there.
I think that’s all the time we have for today. A lot of good discussion. Dale, thanks so much for being here.
Dale: Very welcome.
Katie: Mike, it was a pleasure to podcast with you.
Mike Martin: Any time.
Katie: We will catch you guys next time on Technically Human. As always, feel free to tweet us, shoot us an email. We’d love to know your thoughts on VR, or even your personal experiences, and we will see you next time.
Mike Covert: Ignite Partnership is the marketing agency for technology companies that want to understand and capitalize on complex buyer journeys. Ignite has brought life to tech since 2009. To find out more, visit IgnitePartnership.com.