How did you first become interested in virtual reality (VR)? I remember when my dad first brought home a Commodore 64 computer. It had a mesmerizing effect on me. On the Commodore 64, I could be a ninja, a Ghostbuster and a race car driver. Ever since, the fusion of technology and art has inspired me to create experiences that transport viewers to other worlds and enable them to feel like they can be anything.
The turning point for me was in 2013 when I was working at AKQA. We received an Oculus Rift DK1 headset. With it, I was transported to another world—I felt like a little girl trying the Commodore 64 again. The first time I tried VR, I knew that it was not just a new technology, but an entirely new medium. I wanted to learn everything I could about it.
A few days after receiving the VR developer kit, we pitched an idea to Nissan—one of my clients at AKQA—to enable young drivers to customize the car of their dreams in VR. The Nissan IDx experience debuted at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show. It was the first consumer-facing VR experience, and it received global critical acclaim. Seeing people’s reactions when they took the headset off was unforgettable. Since then, I’ve been driving VR forward and exploring the possibilities of this new medium.
What new skills did you have to learn to succeed in VR? Working in VR right now is really about a mindset. Old ways of thinking bring the same old results, but when you are working in an undefined space, there is no tried-and-true process to fall back upon. This means that the only ways to succeed are by adopting a fail-fast approach, exploring new ideas and experimenting. VR has forced us to work outside our comfort zones. Our parameters and our structure have been wiped away; we are no longer producing our work from straightforward scripts or storyboards and only worrying about what’s inside the frame.
Working in VR is a leap of faith that requires a high level of trust and collaboration between teammates and clients alike. Those who are intimidated by the unknown or who don’t enjoy a little chaos tend to shy away from this environment. It’s a medium for intrepid explorers, storytellers, artists and designers who revel in solving the unsolvable, thrive in adversity and are unfazed by the impossible. And beyond shining a light on the bravest creatives among us, it has brought together disciplines that were traditionally kept separate—data scientists, architects, coders, designers and user experience experts can now be paired with directors, visual effects artists, directors of photography and set designers to create something none of us could produce on our own.
What, if anything, have brands mastered when it comes to VR? It’s still in the early days for the medium. No one has mastered anything yet—we are all learning, experimenting with what works and what’s effective, and educating our clients along the way. But VR content creators are no longer flying by the seat of their pants—this is the chapter that sees us reaping the benefits of exploration. Learning from what’s worked and building on that is essential.
Not all VR experiences are created equal. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a huge increase in branded VR content. From games to documentaries to educational pieces, consumers are currently hungry for VR. Brands are also realizing that the quality of the content and immersion needs to vastly improve. They are asking themselves, “Why should we use VR?” Answering that question is fundamental in ensuring that we put out content that makes this medium indispensable.
As a storyteller, how do you adapt your ideation process to VR? Working in VR has really disrupted the creative process. Early on, we realized that scripts and storyboards just don’t work when trying to present an idea to a client. Prototyping in VR and visualizing in a 360-degree space proved more effective. Running creative VR workshops with clients to establish the brief and challenge is also an effective way to understand whether VR is even the right solution for a project.
Everything starts with a great story, but in the case of VR, you truly need to search for a VR-native way to tell it. Why is the user in the experience? This needs to be asked when crafting the VR experience. It’s not about traditional linear storytelling methods—it’s more of an experience.
We also prototype, research and develop everything that we need to validate. I could not tell you the number of times we have been wrong. We adopt a fail-fast approach to all our experiences, from the very early ones to those we create today. Testing is core to the success of any VR project. Test, test and test again.
Framestore has successfully paired VR with physical effects, like in Merrell TrailScape. Is one mark of a successful VR experience that it engages all the senses? The holy grail of VR is creating a true sense of presence. We found out very early on that mapping the physical and virtual worlds together had a deeper, more emotional connection with the audience. It created a more believable experience. Since then, we have used physical elements where relevant, ranging from heat maps to rumble packs to wind machines. While best suited to event-based experiences in controlled environments, these have proved immensely powerful.
Which projects—besides Framestore’s—have pushed the medium of VR in the right direction? I run a series of VR workshops for clients, and part of that includes showcasing the breadth of groundbreaking work—other than Framestore’s work—happening in the space and what we can learn from them. Some of my favorites leave you with more questions than answers: “Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness,” “Strangers with Patrick Watson,” Trials on Tatooine, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes and “Pearl.”
As content creators, we are in the privileged position of putting VR on the map. With that privilege comes responsibility and accountability. We must be cautious not to blindly follow the VR herd and jump on the VR bandwagon. We are not inventing VR, and we are not starting from scratch. It is important to learn from what people have done before—their mistakes, their innovations and their challenges.
What still needs to happen in order for VR to come into its own? Content is king; it always has been. This has not changed, and it resonates even more with VR as there’s currently not enough compelling content to justify the headset’s price tag and associated upgrades. So, mainstream use of VR isn’t imminent. VR will replicate today’s smartphone ubiquity only once people identify an everyday, truly useful purpose for it. Rest assured, this day will come.