The future of so much of retail will be laced with a virtual reality (VR) edge; semi-fictional leisure worlds where (almost) anything is possible, the ‘un-real’ will become responsive, memories will feel mutable and storytelling will transform into a lived not dictated experience . The appetite for such blurred boundaries is undeniable; in 2018 the number of active virtual reality users worldwide leapt to 171m from 85m just the year before (this includes everyone from early adopters and light gamers to hardcore enthusiasts) with revenues from VR software alone predicted to increase by a whopping 3000% in the next four years. It’s a landscape of elastic and in some case hyper realities that will forge thrilling new allegiances between formerly disconnected industries, in particular bringing the dazzling boffinry of cutting-edge cinematic experiences into the brand domain.
A key player in revealing and potentially developing these new horizons is the “immersive first” entertainment and virtual reality laboratory, ILMxLAB – a division of Disney’s Lucasfilm empire conceived to reimagine audience engagement via the lens of wildly creative technology amid shape-shifting attitudes to media consumption. Straddling the power of shared digital fantasies, LiveCGX, responsive AI with personalized personas and the promise and poignance of virtually archived venues allowing us to visit destinations we missed in the flesh, here’s what the future of film has to offer the evolution of brand land:
Intimate, Everyday, AI-Infused Fictions
According to Mohen Leo, ILMxLAB’s Oscar-nominated director of immersive content, elevating engagement means feeding fictional fantasies into the everyday: “All of this [work we’re doing] taps the ongoing fantasy of wanting to interact with fictional characters. We think a lot about storytelling that weaves into everyday life, applying virtual layers onto the physical world [viewed via devices/screens or wearables such as headsets, which will later become more intimately attached to the human body]”. He suggests those fictions will be elevated by the advance of artificial intelligence granting trans-reality interactions a more personalized edge. Imagine, for instance, interacting with a fictional virtual character/avatar that would be able to recognize you and use what it had learnt from previous interactions you’d made across multiple devices, including verbal discussions with devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, to respond appropriately. “You’ll see conversational AI in this character-infused space very soon,” says Leo. “There’s already a significant demand and investment in the service industries for special effects regarding facial construction and voice related technologies.”
“Genuine, intimate interactions will be pivotal to these experiences and the inclusion of AI will contribute to the persistence of these [virtual] worlds,” concurs Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive in charge of ILMxLAB. “As this idea becomes more ubiquitous we’ll see a greater relevance to encountering virtual characters, which could mean influencers or even pets [the latter, incidentally, being a serious growth industry – it’s currently increasing globally by an average of 3% per year].” As a precursor to the possibilities Dobbs Beck cites an internal project it created using a virtual BB-8 – one of the newest droids from the Star Wars franchise. The unreleased experience dubbed Meet BB-8, in which participants wore HTV Vive VR headsets, saw the droid respond differently according to where he was touched or if someone knelt to scratch him, behaving like a domesticated animal.
The Trans-Reality Flagship: LiveCGX Virtual VJs
Patching virtual extras onto real-world scenarios is unsurprisingly of serious allure to the fantasy-chasing fashion industry. In February 2018 ILMxLab collaborated with London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA) and Canadian designer Steven Tai for Tai’s AW18 show. Live models stalked a platform in front of a giant screen showing imagery transitioning from nature to the urban jungle of Macau before being joined by a digital avatar reflecting the movements of a performer in a motion-capture suit off-stage. The latter, who appeared as a ghostly, interdimensional apparition, played host to two Steven Tai digital garments that segued from one to the other in real-time at the hands of a team of ILMxLAB experts who were overseeing the entire experience. The scene delivered an exciting window onto a triple-layered co-habitation where live models, virtual ‘extras’ and the setting were all in flux.
“It was essentially a live on-screen composite and that’s really where the magic will happen – when live performers and their digital counterparts co-exist or even echo one another,” says Dobbs Beck. “I recall this magical moment where the real model and the virtual, motion-capture performer were mimicking one another. They were looking at one another even though they couldn’t see each other in the flesh, curiously sizing each other up as these similar and yet entirely different entities.” Leo states that this type of concept is ripe for a branded environment, where a real-time computer graphics commander with an overview of what’s happening in-store, watching customers weave in and out of a store setting, could act as a kind of digital puppeteer: “It’s totally possible to have someone like a VJ/DJ adjusting things on the fly to customize the kind of experience seen with Steven Tai to a specific brand space.”
Communal Digital: Shared Fantasies Hyper Realities
Dobbs Beck believes that the communal aspect observed in the FIA/Steven Tai experience, which was watched by numerous bystanders, is key – deflecting assumptions that digital engagement is inherently a solitary pursuit: “We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations regarding creating more intimate, inhabitable brand experiences of this kind, featuring a handful of ‘players’”. She notes that it reveals an appetite for deeper, gaming-style immersions that would shift the standard understanding of storytelling into “story living.” It’s an area rich in opportunities for sports brands that may, for instance, want to translate some kind of sporting experience (basketball, for instance) into a virtual scenario, complete with the injection of fictional characters.
Dobbs Beck cites its work as content creators on the exhilarating Star Wars spin-off concept Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire in late 2017 as a key example of how this may function. The four-player, 30-minute headset and partially haptic suit experience was created in tandem with The VOID – a pioneering virtual attraction business, not uncoincidentally helmed by a former magician, which creates location-based VR experiences known as “hyper realities”. It does this by mirroring much of the virtual landscape in the physical space to deliver a sensorial confusion that dramatically heightens the experience. For instance, if you reach out to touch a virtual wall you’ll also touch a physical one making it nearly impossible to separate the two realities, sending suspension of disbelief into overdrive.
The sense of disbelief is compounded by the invocation of site and story-specific smells, heat and motion plus a coterie of fictional characters designed to scare the army fatigues off you (rebels, other stormtroopers) who will, in future, be amplified by the inclusion of the aforementioned responsive AI. For now, “a key learning from Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was that there’s an important aspect of experiencing fantasy as a group,” says Dobbs Beck. “We had to make sure there were breaks in the narrative to ensure people had time to talk.” Many of the locations were malls, including two
locations in London.
It’s not the only company mainlining the desire for communal digital concepts that, as yet, can’t be achieved at home. LA-based start-up Dreamscape Immersive, which uses technology from Swiss motion-capture company Artanim has created a 10-minute virtual reality mall experience that will enable up to six people to interact in a single virtual environment. It’s backed by Steven Spielberg, film studios Warner Bros and 21st Century Fox,
Corporation and, again,
Digitally Archived Destinations Mainline Emotion
Crafting connections with an emotional resonance is a relatively unexplored area of virtual reality landscaping, where brand experiences so far have largely hinged on practicalities (car customization, accessing hidden angles of products or machinery) or the high-energy fantasies such as Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire that have been its gateway drug. The capacity to re-establish and/or reinvent existing spaces as virtual destinations may change that by playing to the softer and even pathos-laden nuances of nostalgia.
“In the not-so-distant future you’ll be able to capture the real-world using 3D imaging devices and then re-enter it at a later point virtually,” says Leo. “You could therefore recreate these destinations as they were at that point in time, taking someone with you who wasn’t able to be there then. It could be done for anything from a brand building to recreating a soccer stadium and match.” Imagine, for instance, a heritage retailer retrieving its original flagship from a century ago in digital format for new fans to experience. Or consider the emergence of a new retail genre altogether – imagine virtual service providers helping consumers to resurrect the place they got engaged or first met their partner.
It’s entirely unclear what impact the capacity to return, revisit and even relive old experiences will have on our memories and how we piece together our understanding of the world around us, but the door is clearly open to surfacing formerly forgotten spaces. The potential to shuffle and recalibrate them as we go is imbued with significant power. “It will generate the sense of being able to digitally archive memories, respecting and reliving legacy and history in a way that’s very impactful,” says Dobbs Beck. “The nature of these experiences is so deep precisely because of the way we’ll be able to capture specific settings and increasingly layer in more individually responsive, emotive elements.”