West Coast Ad Agencies Are Building On-Site Labs to Experiment With Virtual Reality

VR marketing is like the 'Wild West'

It's a small, windowless room on the second floor of ad agency Team One's expansive Playa Vista, Calif., complex, yet it's also a portal for globe-trotting, deep-sea exploration and space travel. Or, as executive creative director, digital, Alastair Green puts it, "Alice stepped through the looking glass, and this is the other side."

Green is describing Team One's newly opened virtual reality lab, a technology geek's dream and the agency's ground zero for fully immersive marketing concepts for clients like Lexus, The Ritz-Carlton, Indian Motorcycle and EA.

Agency execs launched the on-site lab so they could study the still-nascent VR and home grow some of their own experts. They're banking on what's predicted to be a meteoric rise in the sensory platform now that consumers are starting to lay hands on Oculus Rift and other sophisticated hardware.

The goal wasn't just to build a tech nerve center, though it fits that bill with HTC Vive and Oculus headsets, 3-D modeling tools and a "low-level haptic platform," actually an 8-by-9-foot shag rug that serves as a kind of physical playpen for virtual experiments. But ad mavens wanted to figure out the best way to tell brand stories using head-mounted devices.

"Without truly knowing what the medium can do, you can't concept for it, and you'll always be following other people," Green said. "We're learning a completely new creative language, and it's a different way of looking at consumer behavior."

The lab is an example of how invested ad agencies, particularly those close to Hollywood's production and gaming community, are in digging into the emerging technology. And they want to go beyond asking the question "What can it do?" to understanding how it makes people feel. Pro tip: On the most basic level, if the content dips below 90 frames per second, it tends to make people motion sick. Marketers are looking for emotional resonance, Green said, not projectile vomiting.

Saatchi & Saatchi's Team One recently created a VR mini-episode of the ABC hit drama, Quantico, with Lexus integrated into the 360-degree bonus content. Separately, 180LA, working with St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital and Expedia, launched an immersive campaign that let cancer-stricken kids virtually bust out of their confined spaces to live their "Dream Adventures."

Meantime, 360i premiered an animated VR short for Oreo, dubbed the Wonder Vault, that's racked up 5 million-plus YouTube views to date. Santa Monica, Calif.-based RPA's Music From Every Angle, a 360-degree video for the new Honda Civic with musician Moses Sumney, has more than 3.4 million Facebook views.

The current state of VR in marketing is "a weird and wonderful Wild West situation," said Wesley ter Haar, founder of prolific digital production company MediaMonks, who noted that two of every three brand briefs he sees these days have a VR element.

Many ad agencies will continue to partner with outside vendors, relying on the expertise of companies like MediaMonks, Framestore, MPC and The Mill for the nuts and bolts of VR content.

But agencies that refine their in-house knowledge "will be more adept at big thinking in the space," ter Haar said. "They get enthusiastic about it, they evangelize the technology. Then they start to push against the medium, challenge us and bring us something ambitious. That's when great work happens."

DIY for VR

It's possible to build your own virtual reality play place if you're willing to devote some time, money and manpower to gathering high-tech pieces and learning how to use them. But first, here's a great hack: Get on a platform developer list, like Sony or Samsung or HTC, so you can try out the latest gadgets first. 

What you'll need:

  • Head-mounted devices like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, smartphones, Google Cardboard. Team One's collection shows the quick progression and streamlining of the hardware over just a few years, with models from 18 months ago already looking cumbersome and clunky.
  • VR development station, aka a computer, with the brand ASUS being a hot commodity in the space
  • Development software such as Unreal (game engine), Adobe Suite (design tools), Cinema 4D (3-D modeling tools); save a few bucks with free stuff like Unity3D, Blender and Gimp

  • Enough space for demonstrations because, as Team One's ecd, digital, Alastair Green said, "Clients don't buy what they don't understand." And room to expand: AR, HoloLens and other technologies are just around the corner.
  • Team of coders, creative technologists, developers
  • Caffeine and snacks

This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.