Tag: vr

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.