The Box VR
The overall concept of THE BOX is that of an inviting, gift-themed virtual space. In short-form vignettes, users explore an environment and interact with brand content. The first chapter in this new realm is the Winter BOX: a charming, wintry VR experience.
The task we set for ourselves was to conceive, design, develop, and launch the Winter BOX, both to entice users to experience THE BOX and to demonstrate its versatility and potential as a platform for interacting with companies in new ways.
The primary goal of The Winter BOX was to engage on an almost visceral level with the user: to instill wonder and coax the user into marveling at and engaging with the wintery world. This emotional, human connection—this sense of enchantment and wide-eyed involvement in a new world—is at the core of THE BOX, and will underlie its every future iteration.
Built for Dual Audiences
THE BOX addresses two audiences simultaneously: the brand marketer looking for a new way to approach a tech-savvy customer, and that tech-savvy person, the end user, as well.
The fact that The Winter BOX would be made available during the holiday season was particularly important for us because of its deep roots in the sense of wonder imparted by the giving of gifts.
The BOX was conceived as a new way for brands to reach consumers in the emerging world of VR; The Winter BOX, our prototype, demonstrates the flexibility of the platform. THE BOX is a brand-new way to package short, immersive, virtual experiences that elicit an emotional response. An outdoor brand could use THE BOX to deliver an exhilarating river rapids ride; a fashion label might deliver a virtual runway show giving users the best seat in the house.
Brand marketers need:
- a platform users will seek out and willingly engage with
- a new way to engage with customers
- fresh opportunities to tell their stories
Our end users are the intrepid technology lovers who were first in line for the Samsung Gear VR: curious, digitally-savvy, mostly Millennials; eager to be on the cutting edge. They grew up interacting with brands, rather than just receiving brand messages in a “push” marketing paradigm. They expect a great deal from corporations and brand names, and are quick to notice (and mention) lack of service or quality. As well, we anticipated that this audience wanted something different from the norm, something fresh, to experience in the all-new way offered by the Gear VR.
The end users are seeking:
- a unique experience, different from games and 360 video
- a new way to look at a world they think they already know
- avenues for creativity and play
THE BOX fills the needs of both marketers and end users, with a flexible format that can serve as a new way for brands to reach consumers in the emerging world of VR.
THE BOX Project Process
From concept creation to launch, the process around THE BOX was one of total immersion for the 8ninths team.
Brainstorming & Concept Creation
We’ve been interested in virtual and augmented reality for a long time, so we knew we wanted to make something for the Samsung Gear VR: something new, something that was completely ours. The fascinating thing about VR is that it offers a radical shift in storytelling, completely different from novels, film, or any other traditional means of conveying story. Creating a sense of presence is integral to the way we interact with story in the VR space, so our first goal was to take people on a journey to another world.
The concept of that world as a gift box developed from our company-wide fascination with the excitement and wonder people feel when receiving a gift. Gift-giving is a unifying, universal human experience that everyone loves.
The collaborative brainstorming process of imagining our “gift” world arose from the team’s creativity. The idea of a child’s storybook—warm, inviting, and magical—seemed relevant to the VR space. We wanted the player to open their eyes in a new world with a sense of innocence and to explore it with the wonder of a child. We included the bears to offer the experience of connecting with a fictional character in a way that’s impossible in any other medium.
Through intense conversations in which every member of the team brought their strengths, diverse backgrounds, and playfulness, we came to the idea of THE BOX. It’s a way to explore our fascination with VR’s new form of storytelling and with the concept of gifting.
Experience & Visual Design
As we began designing the user experience and the visual world of The Winter BOX, we explored ideas around the environment, props, and tone. Mood boards helped us develop a sense of the world. Because we’d be releasing during the holidays, we wanted a winter-themed world, but one that still felt warm and inviting. We did color tests and environment layouts, digitally painting scenes, and sketched dozens of different bears to understand the weight and stance of this character. Lots of top-down sketch layouts allowed us to understand where various elements of the environment should be in relation to the player; where trees would obscure the sky; and the shapes of snow mounds and hills. Concept paintings of rocks, trees, and other props gave us a starting point for 3D modeling. Finally, we worked on interactions, developing behavior for the various elements in the scene in response to the player’s actions.
Most importantly, we had to make an inherently cold environment feel welcoming and cozy. Selecting a yellow-purple color palette helped with this.
Designing the bears was a balance, too: On one hand, we wanted realistic-looking bears, but real bears are dangerous and scary, and we wanted a friendly character. Adjusting the shoulders and stance of the bears helped us make them a little more like teddies and a lot less like unpredictable carnivores.
Translating concept designs and 2D digital paintings into moving 3D objects involved a great deal of collaboration among the team. To model the various elements of the environment, we gave them shape, dimension, color, and texture.
For the bear animations, we did a lot of research, watching documentaries and learning about bear anatomy, behavior, and movement. We sketched bear after bear, experimenting with shapes, then created model rigs and animated them with different timing and behavior. It was important to animate not only motion, but also emotion. To give the viewer a sense of empathy and to propel the story, we worked hard to ensure the animation encapsulated the intimate, magical interaction of mother and baby around the fire.
For technical development, we created custom tools in Maya using Python script to help the production workflow, reducing repetitive tasks. In the process of integrating the animation to Unity, the team worked closely together to optimize the 3D assets and animation in order to increase the performance frame rate in the mobile platform.
In developing THE BOX, we worked out a system of efficient rapid prototyping using a component-oriented structure. We decided on using a gaze cursor—in which the player’s head rotation points at selection options—and a tap-to-activate model, which uses the basic inputs of the Gear VR effectively and intuitively.
When it came to performance optimization during the second half of the project, we eliminated bottlenecks as much as possible through techniques such as paring down runtime changes to the scene and optimizing assets and shaders. We were able to process our meshes ahead of time, deleting backfaces in an asset-processing tool, which allowed us to avoid using the more traditional runtime backface culling algorithms.
Although at first we had trouble getting the lighting exactly right, especially at times when it changes, such as when the moon comes out or the fire starts burning, we eventually tuned it perfectly. Through some scrappy engineering, we found ways to effectively fake our dynamic lighting and fading, and were able to bring our uncompromised creative vision to life…running at full speed on a tiny computer that fits in your pocket.
Future iterations of THE BOX could incorporate different landscapes, characters, and experiences in which users could find themselves in entirely new and different relationships with companies they may already interact with. The world of THE BOX allows us to explore memorable, emotional interactions of nearly limitless design.