15 Simple Rules for Activating Your First Virtual Reality Campaign

Before getting the goggles, take notes

In January, we at Hill Holliday had the pleasure of partnering with Framestore to create TrailScape, a first-of-its-kind virtual reality "walk-around" experience for Merrell at the Sundance Film Festival. Simply put, folks could freely explore a virtual environment by actually walking through a physical space.

Rick McHugh

Located on Main Street in a retail space brought to vivid life with the spectacular production talents of our partners at MKG, TrailScape was a brand destination celebrating the outdoors, whose central attraction was an Oculus Rift hike through the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. Never has the cliché "You had to be there" been more apt than in describing a VR brand activation. "Mind-blowing" was how most people described it, and we were thrilled.

But getting there was a long journey, and we learned some hard lessons along the way.

So, here's our cheat sheet:

1. Don't make 'em puke.
Motion sickness is real, so make this test a priority before launching any VR experience. Careful alignment of the VR view and not forcing unexpected motion on your user are the best bets to avoid sickness. Also, as with trips to strange lands, VR journeys are safer with a "guide" on hand who can quickly and effortlessly come to the aid of stumblers.

We had a minimum of two guides for each participant, because with an experience like Trailscape, you can't see where you're going, nor can you see your own body. Walking around without a physical frame of reference can throw some people off, and all the more so when there are obstacles to navigate. It might be fun to watch someone else freak out in front of all their peers at a festival, but it's no fun to do it yourself.

2. Set expectations (internally and externally).
Whatever you think it is today, it'll be different in just a few months, even weeks (this is an arms race). Whatever you want your VR experience to be now, it will change (probably tomorrow). Don't aim for what you've seen or already know. Push the envelope and challenge the people saying no. Because by tomorrow, someone may have invented it.

3. But … expect the unexpected.
Never assume. This is still a very new technology with lots of uncharted waters. Did you know that things like altitude, ground elements and the magnetic pull of Park City, Utah, could potentially be enough to wreak havoc with the Oculus Rift's functionality at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival? Neither did we. Bottom line: Consider all "environmental factors" and the sensitivity of the more sophisticated headsets like the Oculus Rift.

4. Get a better (faster) computer.
With a VR experience like Trailscape, you push a lot of data (we certainly did), so don't underestimate the hardware required to trick the human mind. For example, consider the speed at which you need to display graphics. You have to be as fast as the human eye regardless of how much graphical depth you're pushing. Of course, it's best to have a VR-proficient, supertechie guy or gal on hand, preferably chained to your site for the length of the activation.

5. Incorporate all the senses (4-D).
Don't forget about the other senses that could be stimulated while your eyes and ears are occupied (get your mind out of the gutter, that's not what we meant). We mean wind, the smell of pine trees, the taste of fresh air, the earth moving under your feet, etc.

6. Have a little fun (scare people).
If you're messing with people's perception of reality, you might as well have a little fun and scare the hell out of them. A fake avalanche, for example. Nobody got mad (or sick). Here's another example.

7. You don't know it unless you've tried it.
Like sex, skydiving or seeing Wes Anderson movies, you really don't know how it feels until you've tried it. A prospective client will need to see a hands-on demo to really appreciate what you're pitching. Boards and writeups and even the most passionate creative director's reenactment can't compare to getting them into a headset and having them actually experience it firsthand. But before you put your client in there, see rule No. 1.

8. Be prepared.
There is no VR equipment store down the block (and Radioshack is going out of business!). Bring backups for everything, and every gadget from duct tape to cables. Seriously, know your specialty VR parts. The worst virtual reality is the reality that it's not going to work when your first consumer steps up.

9. It's still exclusive (mine is different from yours).
There are no VR movie theaters (yet), and VR is a very personal experience that will be different for each and every user. Embrace that you are offering people something that very few on this planet have ever done.

10. It doesn't have to be "fast and furious" to be a blockbuster.
In VR, "fast and furious" isn't always a recipe for success (again, see rule No. 1). VR doesn't have to be high speed to be interesting and exciting; immersive and exploratory usually trumps bright lights, loud noises and fast movements.

11. It's a bucket-list activity.
Unlike with other first-time activities, people are going to want to remember this, brag about it, and even share it—with their mother. Make sure you give them the tools to do so across every social media available, and even those not yet invented. And give them some sort of tangible "Look, Ma!" keepsake from their experience: photo, GIF, video, etc.

12. The rules are still being written.
This is a brand-new medium, which is exciting and potentially terrifying. While we continue to uncover new uses, the rules are very much set in sand, not in stone.

13. Don't forget the waiver (don't get sued).
Your rules will depend on your experience and on the physical parameters. The new Viewmaster toy is a Google/VR partnership, for example; as such, it probably won't need restrictions like these. However, if you have people walking around in a potentially hazardous way in an event-type environment, you might want to consider the following:
• No kids
• No heart conditions
• No dogs
• No lawsuits

14. Don't set your production timeline in virtual reality.
Set it in real reality. Then double it. Then add a buffer week. Now you're good to go.

15. Account for "headset hair."

—Rick McHugh is vp and creative director at Hill Holliday. You can check out the agency's "TrailScape" experience for Merrell here.