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Before you start dismissing virtual reality as the stuff of gamer nerds, or the next Second Life, think again. In the last month alone, top creators from the entertainment and ad worlds and major tech companies have begun showing their willingness to invest significantly in this new form of storytelling to help ensure the medium will flourish and evolve.
At the Sundance Film Festival, which concluded Feb. 1, director Chris Milk, known for his expertise in working with new technologies, and production vets Patrick Milling Smith and Bryan Carmody, announced the launch of VRSE Works, a production company devoted to experiences in the VR space. Framestore launched a studio dedicated solely to VR and immersive content. Digital production company Unit9 opened Unit9 VR after creating virtual reality projects for 5gum and wireless company O2.
Tech and electronics companies are also pushing aggressively into the space. Samsung heavily promoted its Gear VR headset at Sundance's New Frontiers program. Facebook's Oculus Rift launched its Oculus Story Studio and premiered its first film, "Lost," a five-minute short directed by former Pixar animator Saschka Unseld. Google also unveiled its cardboard VR viewer, which consumers can either build for themselves or purchase for just a few dollars. Samsung's Gear VR headset carries a $199 price tag, by comparison. Sony has yet to unveil its Morpheus VR headset, but once it does, it could potentially bring VR to the 10 million households that already own the company's game systems.
Even before these developments, the ad industry had started to play in the space. In September, agency Firstborn brought Brooklyn patrons of Mountain Dew's Dew Tour on a spin through Vegas skate parks, alongside pros Paul Rodriguez and Sean Malto. The following month, Havas teamed with director Patrick Sherman, of production company M ss ng P eces, and VR pioneer Felix & Paul Studios to bring the Most Interesting Man in the World's home to life for Dos Equis' annual "Masquerade" event.
"From an advertising perspective, it's a very powerful tool," said Mr. Milk. "Advertisers are looking for two main things: penetrating people's consciousness and getting their undivided attention. With virtual reality, you have their undivided attention because they can't see or hear anything else." Also, a VR experience "affects you in a deeper way," he said.
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Indeed, as uncomfortable as wearing a headset may be -- in the case of Samsung's Gear VR, liken it to strapping a pair of lab goggles, a mobile phone and half a Stormtrooper helmet to your face -- the experience is unique.
For example, in Dos Equis' recent "Masquerade" VR experience, the viewer sits on a chair in the Most Interesting Man's salon as various guests -- dancers, models, acrobats, a magician and the man himself -- come by to mingle. The sense of presence you have is extreme -- when a leopard walks into the room, it's easy to jerk back in fear; when a dancer sits down on an ottoman to your left, you can almost feel the shifting of the furniture stuffing as she lunges toward you.
"The takeaway is remembering that while technology is often heralded as the thing, it still requires all of the storytelling, the great strategy, concept and great execution," said Havas Executive Creative Director Jason Musante. "You can't hang your hat on technology. You have to make people feel something -- and craft a story people are willing to be a part of."
Creating an alternate reality, however, isn't easy, especially when the technology is constantly evolving and the rules of storytelling are still being written. Complaints about the medium range from nausea-inducing visuals to over ambitious ideas that don't translate without the right camera rigs, operator or post-production techniques.
"This is a young art form, a young medium," said Felix Lajeunesse, one half of Felix & Paul Studios. "There aren't millions of creators working in that space, so everything we discover is true for ourselves, but I wouldn't write them into stone saying that these are the rules of VR. We do whatever we feel is right, but at the same time, we're aware we are walking in new territory."
That said, Mr. Lajeunesse has learned that "one thing that turns out to be a rule is that you need to nurture a sense of presence." For example, it's important to give the viewer time to sit still and absorb his or her surroundings quietly. "If you properly orchestrate the experience, then everything becomes more emotional after that," he said. "The viewer's awareness will go up, and all the subtleties you put into place will resonate in a higher way."
VR experiences, as with any advertising, need to make sense for the brand. Clients who get involved in VR productions will also have to relinquish the control they're used to having on typical commercial shoots. No one but the director can be on set during the shoot because the rigs are capturing everything in 360 degrees, for example.
"You're not working with linear time, you're working in time and space," said Havas' Mr. Musante, who helped conceive the Dos Equis project. "You have to worry about sound, where people are. There are no cuts. It presents a unique challenge, but that's why it feels really alive."