Tag: marketing

The Multi-layered Mr. Robot Marketing Experience

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Mr. Robot’s Alternate Reality Game at San Diego Comic-Con

At San Diego Comic-Con last year, the offsite marketing event for USA Network’s Mr. Robot cleverly blended a physical environment with a virtual reality experience. This year, Mr. Robot eschewed the virtual in favor of physical constructions and encounters with live actors. Some aspects of the experience were clearly visible. Other elements were revealed only to fans who participated in a complex alternate reality game (ARG) to solve clues scattered around downtown San Diego.

Clearly Visible: The Bank of E and the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ

While the climax of the experience was cleverly hidden, much of this year’s Mr. Robot activation (as these marketing events are termed) was apparent to anyone strolling around San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

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The condemned Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Note the small white chicken, upper right.

On Fourth Ave, a short distance from the Convention Center, fans could see the storefront of the Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Last year, the shop was the entrance to an elaborate reconstruction of the fictional retail establishment from the TV show, complete with old mid-1990s computers. Moving down a hallway, fans then entered a recreation of the apartment of Elliot Alderson, the show’s protagonist. From there, participants donned VR headsets and entered a 13-minute virtual reality experience written and directed by showrunner Sam Esmail. [For more on the 2016 marketing experience, see: “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media

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Mr. Robot Repair Shop Notice to Vacate.

This year, the repair shop was abandoned. The closed storefront displayed a condemned sign and a notice for eviction. An ad for the E Corp Online, the AOL-like online service of the show’s mega-conglomerate E Corp, could also be spotted. (More on this ad later.) Graffiti was splattered over much of the storefront.

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The Bank of E.

Next door, the Bank of E had a small branch office where fans could sign up for an account from the fictional bank and receive a charge card loaded with 20 Ecoin, the Bank of E’s cryptocurrency. People could also sign up online on the Bank’s website, e-coin.com. While the bank may be fictional, Ecoin worked as an effective pseudo-currency throughout much of the Gaslamp during Comic-Con. Signs declaring “Ecoin Accepted Here,” where fans could use their newly-acquired Ecoin card to purchase souvenirs and snacks, were scattered around downtown San Diego.

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The Red Wheelbarrow BBQ.

Next door to the Bank of E was the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, where Bank of E customers could receive a complimentary pulled pork sandwich (supplied by local favorite Phil’s BBQ) along with chips and a shake.

While the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ appears only obliquely in the previous season of the show — appearing briefly as a takeout menu in one episode — it will reportedly play a larger role in the upcoming third season.

These physical recreations of locations from the show allowed many fans at Comic-Con to enter the world of Mr. Robot. There was, however, a mystery hiding in plain sight.

Following the Clues

While many people were blithely enjoying lunch at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, observant fans noticed clues to something deeper behind the Mr. Robot activation. [For many of the details in this section, I’m indebted to the redditors in the /r/MrRobot/ and r/ARGsociety/ subreddits, particularly B-Cipher, Cornelius55555555, and britter2]

At the Bank of E, a video screen running promotional ads for the bank would occasionally glitch and display a black screen with red lettering saying:

SOMETIMES TO SEE CLEARLY, YOU MUST CLOSE YOUR EYES.
ISE IARI CHI EIVE RIY WIH IERE

Removing the Is and unnecessary spaces, gives: SEARCH EVERYWHERE

Some of the Ecoin Accepted Here signs included the following text at the bottom:

Use Ecoin to unlock the mysteries of the universe!
Don’t wait… EVERY SECOND COUNTS!!
EUNSLEIPGRHOTMEONCMOEDNET

The gibberish at the bottom is an anagram for:

USE PROMO CODE ENLIGHTENMENT

Entering ENLIGHTENMENT as a promo code on the Ecoin website showed a black screen with white text that read:

so, you decided to bank with e corp.

good.

you’re on your way.

but first…

you need a job.

ask an employee at red wheelbarrow if they’re hiring

hope to hear back from you soon.

When asked, staff at the Red Wheelbarrow would hand out a job application form to prospective hires. Applicants were told to be observant and look around both inside and outside the Red Wheelbarrow. Staff also pointed out the application number at the top right of the form: 619. This is the area code for San Diego.

A number of letters were missing from words in the application form. Listing the missing letters gives: “find and assemble the pieces enlightenment calls.”

At the top left of the application, above the Red Wheelbarrow logo, were three circles, the first of which was filled with the other two empty.

On a chalkboard at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ was written the William Carlos Williams poem from which the establishment takes its name:

So much depends upon

a red wheelbarrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens

– William Carlos Williams

Underneath was a speech balloon saying “follow us!” above one of a pair of stickers of white chickens.

A white chicken sticker could also be seen on the closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop.

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Clues hidden in the E Corp Online ad.

Looking closely at the shop’s E Corp Online ad revealed additional clues. At the upper left, three circles could again be seen. In this case, the middle circle was filled with the two outside circles empty.

The first sentence of the text read: “A world of  enlightenment is just a click away with E Corp Online!,” with the bold “enlightenment” harking back to the earlier clues.

Elsewhere in the text, a number of words, representing numbers, were in all caps:

The World Wide Web is what’s happening now, and EOL brings it right to your computers. Sports, Shopping, Travel and more… over FOUR categories of content all at your fingertips.

And thanks to E Corp’s cutting edge technology, connecting with the people and things that you love has never been easier. Our new high connection speeds will have you online in less then THREE minutes!

BONUS: Order now, and receive ONE free hour to check out E Corp Online!

This text thus adds to 619 three numbers: 431.

White chicken stickers led down 4th Avenue and across the street. An abandoned building displayed a street art poster with four marionettes on strings. In the upper left were three circles, with the first two empty and the final circle filled.

The text of the poster read:

If you pull the right strings,
a puppet will dance any way you desire.

A later version read:

The real you is not a puppet
which life pushes around.
The real, deep down you
is the whole universe.

The work was signed “Enlightenment.”

In one hand, each of the figures was holding an object: a noose, a white rose, a cell phone, and a knife. With the other hand, each of the marionettes displayed a number of fingers. In order they were: 2454

Putting together the three sets of numbers gives a San Diego phone number.

A number of people reportedly had problems calling the number, receiving a busy signal or a recording telling them to call back tomorrow.

When the call was completed, the person on the other end said, “If you pull the right strings…” A wrong response would be answered with “Your journey is not complete. Follow the chickens.” If the caller answered correctly with “A puppet will dance any way you desire,” they were congratulated on following the correct path, asked their name, and given the time and location at which to appear. (In some accounts, they were told they could bring one friend.)

At the appointed time and place, the participant was met by someone who asked their name and led them to a doorway for the final segment of the experience.

The End of the Journey

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The secret door opens.

It turned out the entrance to the final chapter of the Mr. Robot Experience was located next to the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ. A glass doorway was covered with newspapers which, in a clever bit of misdirection, appeared to be more relevant to Superman than to Mr. Robot. A Daily Planet newspaper placed in multiple locations on the door trumpeted the headline “Mysterious Crisis Strikes City!” and discussed shocking developments in Superman’s home town of Metropolis.

The newspaper included a crossword puzzle with odd clues:

Across Down
Put First
Things First
Don’t Be
Afraid Switch
Things Up

Although I didn’t see this when I was there, apparently at one point the crossword puzzle on one of the pages was filled in with a series of backward and forward words:

Across:
EHT
TIGHR
OT
THAT
KNLOCU
DEHINDB
DINF

Down:
TNLIGHTENMENE
ROOD
RUMBEN

Unscrambling and rearranging these gives: “Find The Right Number to Unlock Enlightenment Behind That Door.”

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Past the secret door, down the hallway.

The door led to a dimly lit hallway with graffiti on the walls. A woman in a hoody was standing midway down the corridor. I was told I needed to turn over my cellphone before proceeding. I objected. As a compromise, I turned off my phone and promised to keep it in my pocket.

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Angela enters an interrogation room nearly identical to the one at Comic-Con.

The door at the end of the hall led to a darkened room — one that looks virtually identical to the interrogation room encountered by Angela (Portia Doubleday) in the penultimate episode in season 2 of Mr. Robot (titled “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z”).

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As in the TV episode (shown), the room at Comic-Con held a Commodore 64 computer and a red phone.

As in the show, the room contained a dimly lit table on which sat an ancient Commodore 64 computer along with a few 5-1/4-inch diskettes. Also on the table was a red telephone. The only other object in the room was an illuminated fish tank, whose glow provided ambient light in the room.

While the physical environment closely matched the room seen in the show, there was one striking difference: While Angela was interrogated by a young blonde girl — looking much like the Angela would have looked at that age — in the room at Comic-Con, you were facing a person wearing the mask of the ominous Dark Army.

After being directed to sit down, the questions began.

“How many times have you lied today?”

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

The series of questions apparently varied somewhat. One account reported being asked “At what age did you realize you are alone?”

The final question was:

“Are you afraid of the dark?”

At that point, the masked figure slid forward a mechanical light switch. When switched on, the lights went off and the room turned . A black UV light revealed graffiti scrolled on the back wall that included the phrase, “What do those in darkness desire?”

To avoid the obvious I initially answered, “Truth.” The masked figure shook his head. I then responded, “Light.”

At that point, the black light switched off and the dim room lighting returned.

One account reported that the fish tank began to slowly drain, echoing what happens during the similar sequence in show. When I spoke with one of the developers of the activation, he told me the original plan was to drain the tank, but it was taking too long to refill between sessions, so this was dropped.

The red phone then rang. When answered, the distinctive voice of Whiterose (BD Wong) began to speak. “No, no. Please don’t talk. I have allotted precisely one minute and twenty seven seconds for this conversation.” The character then went on to provide hints about the upcoming season of Mr. Robot, the main thrust of which (as well as I can recall) was that things were in motion that were much deeper than E Corp president Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and others currently realize.

After replacing the receiver at the end of the call, my interlocutor said I had earned the right to see something. He handed me a manila envelope and said I had 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside were a series of photos from season 3 of Mr. Robot.

After viewing the photos, I returned them to the envelope and handed it back. I was then told I could leave and was shown the door.

Once in the hallway, participants who turned over their cellphones had them returned. I exited the hallway to return to the bustle of San Diego’s 4th Avenue and the crowd blissfully dining at the Red Wheelbarrow.

Worlds Within Worlds

The final phase of this elaborate marketing activation was a haunting experience. Being placed into a bizarre situation from the show — not as a digital simulation, but a physical environment interacting with human performers — is an eerie experience.

It’s striking how much effort went into the hidden elements of the marketing experience that would be seen by only a few fans of the show. A representative from Civic Entertainment Group, the company that helped to develop the activation with USA Networks, told me the final act of the experience took about 8 minutes. Allowing for buffer time between each session, this implies that only six or seven people per hour could go through the experience. As mentioned above, draining of the fish tank was dropped in order to decrease the time to cycle between each session. And some people were reportedly told they could bring a friend, which would double the number of participants. Even so, it’s a large effort for a limited audience.

Of course, the Mr. Robot presence at Comic-Con extended beyond the obscure clues that led to the final experience. The closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop, the Bank of E, and Red Wheelbarrow BBQ were readily apparent to anyone who strolled by.

In a way, this echoes the structure of the Mr. Robot TV show itself. Many viewers simply watch each hour-long episode. Others pick up on the obscure references and hidden “Easter eggs” that reveal additional story details or lead to other websites or videos for a deeper experience.

The Comic-Con Mr. Robot Experience was a rich interactive component to the show’s layered, transmedia content.

Related articles:

The images from Mr. Robot are from a copyrighted television program, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the program’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other photos on this page are copyright © 2017 Kendall Whitehouse.

 

From the Real World to the Virtual: Westworld at New York Comic Con

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Virtual reality (VR) had a significant presence at ReedPop’s New York Comic Con this year. A dedicated exhibition space on the lower level of the Javits Center, dubbed the Experiential Zone, demonstrated a number of approaches to virtual reality and immersive cinema for both entertainment and marketing.

Entrance to the Westworld VR Experience.
Entrance to the Westworld VR Experience.

One of the most compelling examples of using virtual reality for a marketing experience didn’t take place inside the Javits Center, however. A half block away on West 37th Street, HBO’s Westworld VR Experience presented a combination physical environment and virtual experience to promote the network’s sci-fi series.

The Westworld VR Experience debuted a month earlier at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. At New York Comic Con, the virtual simulation was enhanced by a physical space that set the stage for the immersive experience.

Hybrid Physical/Virtual Environment

This type of hybrid physical/virtual environment has been featured in a number of recent high profile marketing “activations” (as the industry terms them). At this past summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle VR Experience combined a virtual simulation with a constructed environment designed to recreate the world of the program. (The Man in the High Castle VR Experience was also present in New York Comic Con’s Experiential Zone, but without the physical installation preceding the VR experience.) The most notable recent blending of real world and virtual environments as part of a marketing activation was the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience at San Diego Comic-Con. After entering a detailed reconstruction of the bedroom of the show’s protagonist, Elliot Alderson, you then enter a VR simulation that begins in the very room in which you’re sitting. It’s an uncanny sensation.

Westworld entrance.
Welcome to Westworld.

New York Comic Con’s Westworld activation presents a similar experience that transitions from the real world to the virtual.

A short distance from the Javits Center, a sleek facade with frosted glass doors displays the logo: “Westworld: A Delos Destination.” Inside you enter a lustrous black and glass corridor and are greeted by performers playing the role of Westworld’s “hosts,” the program’s synthetic humans. Dressed in white and speaking in eerily measured tones, the hosts welcome you to Westworld.

Westworld host.
Your host greets you.

After a few introductory comments — and warnings about violence and nudity in the virtual experience — you stand in the center of a black room, empty except for a chair in the corner. An assistant helps you don your HTC Vive VR headset and audio headphones, and you grasp your Vive controller. You’re also told that should you feel uncomfortable during the experience you can raise your hand and the assistant will help you end the experience (advice that’s both comforting yet somehow unnerving).

In many of these interactive simulations, including The Man in the High Castle Experience and the Mr. Robot VR Experience, the participant remains seated at the center of a 360-degree virtual environment. In the Westworld Experience, by contrast, you can move around to a limited degree within the environment. This can be disconcerting, since you’re moving through a physical space you can’t see. To avoid accidentally running into the walls, the simulation displays a series of bars floating in space if you move too close to the edge.

Entering Westworld

The Westworld simulation plays out over three brief tableaux. It begins with you entering a room where you select your weapon and decide whether you want to wear a white or a black hat. The simulation closely follows the scene in episode 2 of the program where new Westworld guest William (Jimmi Simpson) is presented with a similar set of choices. (When I went through the virtual experience, I hadn’t yet seen this episode. When I finally watched it, it gave me an eerie sense of déjà vu.)

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Inside the Westworld simulation, the sheriff approaches.

After making these choices, you enter the western setting familiar from the show. A row of wooden buildings stands beside sandstone cliffs under a wide, blue sky. After picking up ammunition and loading your revolver, you engage in target practice by shooting bottles.

A sheriff then ambles over to recruit you to join a posse. But before that gets underway, the sheriff starts to glitch. Something’s not right here.

You’re instructed to move over to the chair in the corner. (This is one of the more bizarre aspects of the simulation. Contacting a physical object in a space that you perceive through a virtual simulation is an odd experience.)

Once seated, the setting changes to the Delos lab where simulated humans are being created and repaired. With the ability to look in any direction, you can survey the entire scene. Things are glitching here as well. Your vision falters and lights flash. There’s a commotion in the lab. A synthetic human is out of control. Things are clearly breaking down in Westworld.

The Throughput Conundrum: Does It Scale?

As impressive as the simulation is, it has one constraint as a marketing tool: throughput. The interactive experience lasts 11 minutes. Allowing time for a brief introduction and exit, sessions are scheduled in 15 minute blocks. At New York Comic Con, there were two rooms that ran simultaneously. Thus, eight people per hour can participate in the experience, which runs for nine hours each day for a total of 72 people per day, or 288 participants throughout the four days of the convention.

This is obviously a small fraction of the attendees at the con. (Because New York Comic Con reports the number of tickets sold, rather than the number of unique individuals, it’s difficult to know exactly how many people attend the event.)

As I previously discussed in Knowledge@Wharton [“Marketing at Comic-Con: Virtual Reality Melds with the Real World“] the approach taken by the Mr. Robot VR Experience may offer a more effective model for this type of marketing event. The 13-minute Mr. Robot simulation was launched at San Diego Comic-Con through a similar hybrid physical/virtual environment. [For more on the Mr. Robot Experience, see “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”] The video was also available during an online simulcast for users with home VR systems such as Google Cardboard. Subsequently, it has been made available online in multiple formats for VR gear, mobile devices, and desktop systems.

This approach leverages the buzz generated by the hardcore fans who attend Comic Con, while also gaining a larger audience through the simulcast, and then further expands the piece’s reach through the on-demand offerings.

As VR plays an expanding role in marketing, expect to see more of this layered approach to reach a broadest possible audience for these rich, interactive experiences.

 

A version of this article also appears in Knowledge@Wharton: “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con.”

Image from the Westworld VR Experience is from a copyrighted work, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the production company and/or distributor. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other images © 2016 Kendall Whitehouse

The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media

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Virtual reality was a significant presence in the marketing experiences at Comic-Con International: San Diego this year. Both at the booths inside the Convention Center and the offsite events throughout downtown San Diego, a number of movie studios, television networks, and video game companies presented VR experiences designed to generate buzzworthy excitement in attendees. From Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle to Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty to Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR, fans throughout Comic-Con were donning virtual reality headsets.

Among the most impressive of these was the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience written and directed by Mr. Robot creator and showrunner Sam Esmail, and developed for USA Network by Here Be Dragons and Within.

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Rows of fans immersed in the Mr. Robot VR experience in Petco Park.

For an advertising piece, the VR experience ran a surprisingly long 13 minutes. One of the constraints of this type of marketing event is throughput — the number of people who can cycle through the event each hour. Of course, Sam Esmail is famous for turning in episodes of the Mr. Robot television program that run longer than their intended time slot, even going so far as to apologize on Twitter recently for doing so.

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Cast members view the Mr. Robot VR experience at Petco Park.

The Mr. Robot VR Experience was available from several locations during San Diego Comic-Con, including in white Uber vans designed to resemble Mr. Robot repair vehicles driving around the Gaslamp Quarter and at an event with the show’s cast at Petco Park. It was also broadcast live during the Petco Park event, allowing fans not attending Comic-Con to share the experience (in what an NBC/Universal press release described as “largest-ever co-viewing virtual reality simulcast event”). Subsequently, the VR segment has been made available for on-demand viewing on home devices, mobile phones, and desktop systems.

The most effective venue for the virtual reality experience, however, was a pop-up installation constructed in downtown San Diego that featured a physical, real-world environment that cleverly blended with the virtual content.

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The sign above the Mr. Robot repair shop in downtown San Diego for Comic-Con.

USA Network converted the exterior of a downtown San Diego building into a recreation of the Mr. Robot repair shop run by Elliot’s late father in the show. On entering the building, circa mid-1990s era computers, parts, and advertisements continue the illusion. A corridor at the rear of the shop leads to another room, a reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment as seen in the show. While waiting for a VR headset to free up, you can explore the details of Elliot’s life scattered around the room: his desktop computer, circuit boards, and even bills from New York City utility companies. This is familiar territory, a place we’ve seen many times in the television show.

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From inside a reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment, you enter the virtual world…

After taking a seat and putting on a Samsung Gear headset and a pair of headphones, the real world is replaced by the virtual. The virtual environment you initially enter is, somewhat surprisingly, Elliot’s apartment — essentially identical to the physical location in which you’re actually sitting. There’s a noteworthy exception, however: As you turn your head, Elliot (played by Rami Malek) is sitting beside you.

While narratively working as a flashback — the video covers events that occurred before the time frame of show’s first season — it is, in fact, a contemporary memory. We’re experiencing Elliot’s current recollections of a much earlier event.

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…the virtual world of Elliot’s apartment with Elliot sitting next to you.

The voice we hear, Rami Malek’s Elliot, is the voice inside his head. As he does in the TV show, Elliot is simultaneously thinking to himself and narrating his inner thoughts to us, his ever-present, but unseen, companion.

Elliot is about to go on a first date with Shayla, a character we know from the first season of the show. In those TV episodes, Shayla is Elliot’s friend, drug supplier, and occasional lover. In the VR experience, Elliot is recalling their first encounter and how deeply he wants to avoid seeing her, how painful he finds these artificially-constructed social situations.

As Elliot smokes a joint, the camera floats upward toward the ceiling and we now view the scene from this more disengaged perspective. We follow Elliot and Shayla on their date to Coney Island and join them as they ride on a Ferris wheel, the VR simulation providing a dramatic 360-degree view of the surroundings. As their relationship grows closer, the scene melds into an abstract sequence with the two characters dancing in silhouette against a color-shifting background. Finally we return back to the “reality” of the apartment in the virtual world — and, again, in the real world when we remove the Samsung Gear headsets.

In its 13 minutes, Esmail’s piece runs the gamut from realistically grounded to surrealistically untethered and back again. As the locations change throughout the piece, the mood swings from reticence to euphoria to tragic loss.

The Mr. Robot VR video assumes we’re familiar with season 1 of the show, and uses that information as a backstory to make an immediate emotional connection. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the first season of Mr. Robot.) Because of what we know of the series, Shayla’s plea for Elliot to remember her gains a profoundly melancholy dimension. We, like Elliot, feel sorrow and desperation as he struggles to hold on to his recollection of her as his memory falters and fades. It’s an emotionally powerful moment.

Aside from being a compelling VR experience, Email’s piece also an example of the power of transmedia storytelling. While based on what we know about the television series, it expands the narrative into new territory. It offers new details on the relationship between Elliot and Shayla and adds emotional depth to his feelings of loss and guilt. It’s a powerful work that both stands on its own as a self-contained 13-minute vignette and adds additional depth to television episodes.

Whatever it may indicate about the possibilities of VR for media marketing, the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience may also point to the future of rich, multi-threaded storytelling across different media.

 

The image from the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Old Habits Die Hard: What Matters in Media Metrics

dollhouse-twitter-w240.jpgIn between the flurry of stories about Fox Broadcasting declining to air the mysterious 13th episode of Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” and concerns that the series may be summarily canceled, an interesting tidbit appeared on Twitter from the Whedon camp.

Despite rumors that Fox has already decided to cancel “Dollhouse,” published reports have claimed that the network doesn’t plan to make a final decision on the program’s future until their “up-front” week in late May. The notion that the series’ fate is still undecided was reinforced by a tweet yesterday from @drhorrible (Whedon and company) which stated, in part, “If more people watch Dollhouse LIVE, the higher our chances for a 2nd season”

Beyond the thread of hope it gives to fans of the series, this message implies that the fate of “Dollhouse” is largely in the hands of those who watch the Fox network broadcast of the show. People viewing the same content on their digital video recorders (DVRs) or at Hulu.com a day later are apparently less important to the powers at Fox who control the network’s programming.

DVR viewing is admittedly problematic since most viewers skip over the advertisements which are intended to fund the “free” content. But Hulu should be a marketer’s dream, since viewers are unable bypass the advertisements (and, because of their brevity, there is little incentive to walk away and do something else until the spots are over). In addition, user tracking data for sites like Hulu (as well as some DVRs like the TiVo) is much more accurate and more detailed than that of broadcast television.

Furthermore, although the details are a bit murky, there is evidence that Hulu’s ad rates are as good as or better than those of broadcast television. In March, 2008 Hulu CEO Jason Kilar claimed that Hulu’s ad rate was better than that of primetime network programming. In June, 2008, a Silicon Alley Insider article also stated that Hulu’s ad rates are “higher than network TV.” The latter, however, cited a range of $25 to $30 CPM (per thousand views) for ads on Hulu, which is in the same neighborhood as the average  30-second primetime TV spot according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, an industry trade association.

Whether or not “Dollhouse” (or any other network show) survives to run another season, it’s unfortunate that the program’s fate may rest on the actions of one segment of its viewing audience. To the extent this is true, it’s another example of how industry practice lags behind the current state of media evolution.

Avoiding the “Excluded Middle”: Counter Moves in a Down-Market Trend

Jon Fine’s “Media Centric” column in the December 13 BusinessWeek describes the launch of Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle magazine which, contrary to current publishing trends, focuses on a high-end product that revels in its print origins. Fine writes, “In a manner almost wholly lost at American magazines, [Monocle] cherishes the primacy of a print publication as physical object. Each issue contains startling photography, multiple kinds of paper stock, and, somewhat discordantly, concludes with a manga comic. Monocle is either prescient, or steering sharply toward an audience that doesn’t exist.” Fine concludes, “perhaps Monocle evinces a next generation of magazines: higher-end, aimed at much smaller audiences, and with a Web component more like TV than print.”

Or this may be merely an example of what might be termed the “excluded middle”: When products or services become commoditized, it’s the broad, mid-market that disappears. But there’s a corollary to this observation: As everyone runs to the low end of the market to expand share in an attempt to retain profits as margins shrink, you can often stake out a profitable niche by doing the exact opposite — moving to the high-end of the market.

When the multiplex began to dominate theatrical movie exhibition, it seemed to signal the end of large screen movie houses. Indeed, the economics of the multiplex were impossible to deny: more screens offered more consumer choice, the option to allocate screens based on a film’s popularity maximized capacity, the ability to show a single print on multiple screens by staggering the start times trimmed costs and gave the audience more viewing options. But as the drive toward smaller screens advanced, IMAX was able to differentiate itself by doing the exact opposite: enhancing the theatrical experience with a larger screens and better sound. (For more on IMAX, see Knowledge@Wharton: IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond on What’s Next for the Big Screen)

While Dell and HP try to squeeze profits from low-cost commodity PCs, Apple charges a premium for the sophisticated design of its systems. Apple did the same thing in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Commodore and Atari tried to undercut each other on price at the low end of the home computer market while Apple stayed at the high end with the Apple II.

Of course this doesn’t mean that every high end product will succeed in a commoditized market. The secret of success is more complex than that. And I have no idea whether Monocle will ultimately prove successful. But its counter move to the high end of the publishing market makes sense.

Like the Johnny Mercer / Harold Arlen song advises, “Don’t mess with Mister In-Between,” but bear in mind that this leaves opportunities at both ends of the market.