Ever since United and Continental merged in 2010 to create the world's largest airline, Daniel Cuellar's department has been hard at work creating a swanky new business class called Polaris. It's a rarified preserve in the front of United's Boeing 777s complete with 16-inch high-definition screens at every seat, lobster on the menu and flat beds fitted with Saks Fifth Avenue sheets.
"We've been working on this for four years," said Cuellar, United's senior manager of onboard product development, and we were ready to come out with it this summer."
But there was a problem: Boeing wasn't ready. The aircraft manufacturer won't be delivering the airline's new 777-300 planes until December. So Cuellar's challenge was to impress the flying public with a product that didn't yet exist.
His solution: Virtual reality, with a little bit of help from Matt Damon.
United partnered with digital creative studio Thinkingbox to create a 360-degree, 3-D virtual tour of the new amenities, which are both onboard the planes and in new terminal gate lounges with day beds, showers and restaurants.
"We were conscious of the years of thoughtful consideration that United put into the design of Polaris," Thinkingbox executive creative director Troy Graham told Adweek. "Our mandate was to faithfully reproduce every aspect of the new business class experience." (Scroll down to see a gallery of images.)
For many consumers, VR has come to mean wearable headsets that work with smartphones and downloadable apps. But United was aiming for something higher flying than that. Using the UnReal 3-D game engine and Oculus Rift's latest headset and headphones, Thinkingbox built the virtual environments from scratch from CAD renderings and motion-captured CGI characters. The result—while obviously still a computer-generated environment—delivers a highly realistic, four-minute experience of strolling through the gate and boarding the plane.
"It's a great way to showcase an experience that doesn't exist yet," Cuellar said.
Part of that experience is Damon, who is the official voice of United. The actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter was in the studio recording United's new spot for the upcoming Olympics and, since he finished that script early, he had time for the Polaris narration, too.
"We just put the script in front of him," Cuellar said. "People get all excited when they realize it's him talking in their ears."
United is currently on the road with its new VR experience and will be showing it off to the flying public at events including the The Barclays PGA golf tournament from Aug. 25 to 28 and the New York City Marathon in November.
For those who don't happen to be in the places where the VR experience is stopping but do want to hear a sexy, soothing voice talking about pajamas, lavender pillow mist and "finding ways to help you get real sleep," there's always YouTube.