Demystifying the Craft and Promise of VR

By Chris Buettner

When it comes to emerging technologies, few have received as much attention—positive or negative—as virtual reality (VR). The proclamations about its future range from overly optimistic assertions that soon-to-be ubiquitous VR will create incomparable empathy, to rants that it will trigger desensitization, isolation, and physical harm. While the VR hardware and software race will continue to heat up, the ultimate value of VR will hinge on the creativity and intent of the people crafting the experiences.

For this first article in a four-part series on experience design trends, I asked two VR visionaries, Pasi Helin and Mark Pytlik, to share their thoughts and insights. Full disclosure: Both men are members of SoDA (a global, invite-only network of digital shops), and I am SoDA’s executive director.

Create: Could you tell us a little about yourself and how your company got into VR so early in the game?

Pytlik: I’m the chief executive officer and founder of a global creative studio called Stinkdigital. Our sister company, Stink, is a content and film production company that has had a global footprint in the film world for almost two decades now. Stinkdigital was born in 2009, and we’ve had the privilege of developing some of the world’s most recognized digital and integrated work. Since VR often demands a combination of filmmaking and interactive ability, it’s been a natural area for us to move into.

Helin: I’m a partner of MediaMonks and chief compliance officer of MediaMonks Stockholm. I started in the post-production industry 24 years ago and have been working as a creative Flame Artist ever since. Back in 2001, after a few years of freelancing for companies like The Mill and Method Studios LA, I joined the Swedish production company Stopp as a partner. Stopp later became part of MediaMonks.

In 2013, we started to be involved in 360 video productions that were used in interactive campaigns. These projects gave users the possibility to interact with the video by looking around in the films.

Since 360 video is the source for a VR experience, our material could easily be applied to a VR headset to provide the full immersive experience.

Create: Doing experience design right often means making fundamental changes to your process, tools, and mindset. As a pioneer in the realm of VR, can you describe the types of changes brands and agencies just entering this realm need to make to create VR experiences that are well crafted and deliver value?

Helin: First of all, you have to truly comprehend the medium of VR. Once you’ve developed an understanding of the technology, its real potential becomes clear. Some recent entrants into the VR realm are taking an adaptive approach, taking traditional TV commercials and attempting to transform them into VR experiences. That simply doesn’t work.

Pytlik: From downloading an app to configuring a headset, there’s still a decent amount of pre-pro that goes into being able to consume a VR experience, so the payoff in terms of entertainment value has to be commensurate with that. It’s early, and we’re all coasting a bit on the novelty of VR right now, but once there’s a serious abundance of unbranded VR experiences to choose from, the branded ones will have to be doubly good to break through. Brands that try to shoehorn the same old marketing messaging into VR will fail; those who think of it as an opportunity to do things that are truly engaging and compelling and best-suited to that medium will succeed.

Create: Which of your VR experiences are you most proud of? Why?

Pytlik: Last year, we collaborated with Google on a project called Inside Abbey Road that we’ve since ported over to various VR platforms. It’s great for two reasons: One, it’s based on a 3D LIDAR [Laser Imaging, Detection, and Ranging] scan of Abbey Road Studios and is therefore a true VR experience (as opposed to a 360 film), which is infinitely more immersive and engaging. Two, it takes the user to a place they could truly never otherwise visit, which to me is a better and more representative use of the technology than using it to replicate an everyday experience.

Helin: We are proud of many of our previous projects, including a recent VR initiative for Etihad Airways, but currently we are working on our most challenging project yet. It’s a project in which we take VR craftsmanship to the next level to deliver a much higher quality than any of the projects we have seen to date. It has taken us an inordinate amount of time to plan the shoot, but the end result will be spectacular.

Create: Looking back, what are three things you’ve learned about crafting VR experiences that you think agencies and brands just entering the world of VR should know?

Helin: To give the viewer an ultimate VR experience, one of the most important things with live-action VR is to have a perfectly crafted spherical image. This means the stitching has to be seamless, the audio has to be made for VR, and the overall image should be perfect in every aspect.

You also need to know how to avoid dizziness. After so many projects, we know exactly how and where we can mount the cameras in order to have a good VR experience without causing nausea.

One seemingly simple but very important factor is that you have to have a good idea, and one that is suitable for a VR experience. There’s no getting around that.

Furthermore, you need to understand you can’t use one of the consumer VR cameras that are hitting the market and expect to craft a good VR experience. Those are for consumers to capture their surfing, snowboarding, etc., to be shared on Youtube or Facebook as 360 content.

Pytlik: Here are three things I would love all clients to consider about VR:

  1. Don’t assume that VR will turn something banal into something interesting.
  2. Understand the difference between 360 video and true VR.
  3. Don’t forget to leave room for simple interactions.

Create: What types of prototyping and design software do your teams use to create VR experiences?

Helin: As VR is still in such a nascent stage, software and hardware that sufficiently meet our needs honestly do not exist. In most of our disciplines, we are using preproduction products or we are making our own hardware. Currently we mostly work with our two 3D printers that are used to print our own camera mounts and camera rigs [see below].

MediaMonks must make a lot of its VR equipment because the technology is so new

Create: Technology works best when it brings people together. What do you see as the potential for VR to unite people in new and interesting ways? Are there technology advances that still need to be made for that potential to be realized?

Pytlik: People often refer to VR as an “empathy machine,” but I don’t know if I’m fully onboard with that talking point. It implies that empathy is somehow automatically generated by feeling more physically proximate to someone or something, which I don’t think is strictly the case.

But I do think there’s something compelling and powerful in VR’s ability to erase the individual experience. To go to another place, you first have to leave yourself, and I think it’s the act of leaving oneself that people are fascinated by.

Like any compelling new technology, I don’t see VR as intrinsically good or bad; that sensation of being divorced from your body will probably spawn all sorts of constructive and destructive social dynamics.

Create: What’s next for your companies on the VR front? Any upcoming projects or areas of exploration that you’re really excited about right now?

Pytlik: There are lots, but nothing I can talk about quite yet. In terms of recent projects, we’ve just collaborated with the directors Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) and Stephan Wever on a VR experience for Hennessy that I’m quite proud of. It’s a strange metaphysical little journey that makes really great use of the medium.

Helin: The majority of our projects to date have been live-action VR. With HTC and Oculus entering the field, there will be a huge market for real-time 3D VR experiences. This gives the user the ability to move and interact in a VR space, and it opens up endless opportunities to develop new types of experiences.