A low, industrious hum pervades the 8ninths studio. Among the long-tabled workstations peppered with monitors, between gangly wheeled chairs, swims a small bob of sea lions. They dive, surface, flick their flippers, rolling and twirling to get a sense of who they are in the world and in the water. Occasionally one returns to the dry land of a desk to take notes on a gesture or motion; eventually, they are all beached back at their keyboards, translating the experience into form and color, into ones and zeroes. This is the 8ninths team at work.
As a company intently focused on Virtual and Mixed Reality, we were eager to develop this concept app for the Oculus Rift. We saw this as a bridge between the work we’ve done in the web/mobile world and the future we envision in the VR space. We wanted to explore how a brand or a logo could infuse a virtual reality experience. Since we were developing for ourselves, the work was our playground, so it made sense to focus on our own brand.
The task we set for ourselves was to create a brand identity piece in virtual reality. Although VR immerses the player’s attention, we also wanted to involve the emotions, so our goal was to produce a fantastical experience that would get people emotionally interested.
We created this piece as a demo for marketers and advertisers who might be considering what it means to rethink their brand for a virtual world; meanwhile, we kept the Oculus Rift user top-of-mind. To stand out on a platform packed with futuristic, sci-fi style games, we wanted to offer something fresh, natural, and lovely.
Brainstorming & Concept Evolution
We’re a visionary, intrepid firm with a strong sense of creativity and drive for exploration, and we wanted to instill our personality into this piece. We wanted the player to experience the power of our imaginations and share with us the excitement of exploring new worlds—literally, in the sense of the underwater world, and figuratively, in the VR world. Our goal was to increase the player’s heartbeat a little—not to shock, but to excite; to incite in the player the same heady curiosity and trailblazing verve we feel in our work. We experimented with developing the sensations of trepidation and wonder, intentionally building the experience to a crescendo to provide a sense of satisfaction and completion.
From this baseline of the emotions we wanted to achieve, we began creating the storyboard. The concept of the iceberg, with most of its substance hidden from immediate view, is integral to our brand identity, so starting with this concept felt right.
In our first build, the experience was much more static and simple. The scene included just the water and iceberg, without the ice cave; we hadn’t yet incorporated the ice floes or any sea creatures beyond the polar bear. Our consensus was that we wanted to tell more of a story, so we added the surprising dive into the ice cave and incorporated the sea lions as guides. The sea lions’ friendly, persistent presence as a sort of spirit animal, keeping the player safe, balanced the feeling of near-apprehension developed through the action. (We had originally considered penguins in this role–they have such a playful attitude—but there are no penguins in the Arctic, so we chose a sea lion because of its friendliness.) We started with a rigged sea lion model and animated all its movements, practicing those movements ourselves in the office and iterating until it felt just right.
Introducing out-of-reach experiences
The motion of the sea lion and of the player simulate a cruising, diving experience that reminds the viewer of nature documentaries. With the immersive nature of VR, the experience provides visual—and subsequently physical—sensation of adventure: swimming with seals, fish, and a whale enriches the viewing experience much more than just passively observing those creatures. The sense of being there, under the water, provides unique simulated experience that was once only shared among divers.
Deliberate, Emotional Art
Characters with movement brighten a VR experience with an extra level of intimacy and a breath of life. It works especially well for the Iceberg experience as an on-rail experience: the limitations imposed by an on-rail journey introduce a sense of respect in exploring simulated nature, a sense of wonder and cohesiveness without intrusion.
Use of Sound
Audio is a critical part of the player’s immersion in the VR experience, and we experimented with using it to create an emotional response. The first build had no music, using more realistic sound effects instead, but we found that didn’t hold the story together as a cohesive whole. When we incorporated intense, cinematic music, keeping some sound effects but toning them down, we felt we’d hit the right balance for the epic journey of the piece.
Water Has a Lot of Polygons
One of the things we learned is that water has a lot of polygons and movement, which takes up a lot of refresh rate. In the VR environment, speed decreases as the number of vertices displayed increases, so we used tricks such as not painting the vertices behind the player or turning down the quality of the model in order to keep the number of polygons at a manageable level. Maintaining the balance between quality and speed vs. performance was a constant struggle.
While a great deal of this balancing act had to do with the water, models were also an issue. Some of the high quality models we wanted to use wouldn’t work because the polygon count was too high; adding them caused judder. Through trial and error, we found the sweet spot for how many assets we could have in addition to the water.
Avoiding Motion Sickness
One of the primary concerns in VR development is motion sickness. We found that the water environment exacerbated the sensation of moving, and had to be very careful that we weren’t using too much water in a scene.
Because the piece is essentially a roller coaster ride in which the player is “on rails,” that is, can’t move on their own, we worked to minimize discomfort through various techniques. We modified the speed at which the player moves around the iceberg and gets onto the whale. We learned not to turn corners too sharply, but to make them smooth and rounded. To ground the user, we made sure the experience had a sense of ebb and flow, increasing and then reducing the amount of stimuli and providing moments of pause to allow the player to absorb their surroundings.
Oops: Don’t Pop the Immersion Bubble
Like getting caught up in a good movie, immersion in the VR world is based on suspended disbelief. It’s a fragile state that’s easily lost. Just as our disbelief comes rushing back when we see a boom mike enter the scene of a movie, so we are forcibly ejected from the VR experience by noticing inconsistencies in that environment.
In the Iceberg Demo, one little glitch remains as an example of this eggshell-thin state of mind. We’d been playing with the position of the moon, and didn’t go back to fix it, so that at one point, the moon doesn’t line up with its reflection on the water. Chalk it up to a learning experience.
The Best Part: Teamwork and Fun
The Story Leaps off the Page
The most fun aspect of creating the Iceberg Demo was how quickly we were able to go from a storyboard to a rough experience that felt pretty immersive. Seeing the ideas leap off the page from the storyboard and actualized into the VR, realizing that our vision was within our grasp, was incredible. We were able to leverage the team’s varied experience in areas like theatre and filmmaking, collaborating and using different ways of thinking, designing, and developing with a process of constant iteration.
Watching the Player
Because we know the story and pace of the piece so well, it’s really fun to watch people experiencing it for the first time. We love the little moments of discovery, especially when they dive into the water. We can tell where they are in the sequence and know what they’re about to see; we’re sharing their delight. We love offering this exciting VR experience to people for the first time.
Universal Significance: a Branded VR Experience
The result of our experimentation with the Iceberg demo is a new form of brand storytelling. In the past, brands have struggled to communicate their stories to their audiences. Now, in the VR space, the audience can dive in, emotionally connect, and actually be a part of the story.