What it Means to be a VR Agency

Oculus Creators Blog
Posted by REWIND
August 23, 2018

We recently sat down to chat with REWIND — an award-winning immersive content studio with a passion for VR. REWIND combines cutting edge technology with strategic thinking to create immersive virtual, physical and digital narratives for a variety of brands including HBO, Red Bull, Paramount, Lexus, Nike, Jaguar, and BBC.

In this part one of a two part series we explore how REWIND got started with VR and what learnings and key takeaways they have to share with other agencies trying to break into VR.

Q: How did REWIND get involved in VR?

When we got our hands on the original Oculus DK1 we were inspired to build our own room scale VR using a DK1, three XBOX 360 Kinects, three tracking laptops, one backpack laptop, and a Razer Hydra for hands. We got a glimpse of the future, and it was a glorious sight! It wasn’t long before we made one of the first commercial VR projects on Oculus, with a Red Bull Air Race VR simulator which put users right in the cockpit of a stunt plane, allowing them to experience laps around the world’s key racetracks.

Q: Were you a VR-first agency or did you evolve to support VR?

I started REWIND in 2011 as a high-end CGI, VFX and TV commercial business, but when the Oculus DK1 was released, we immediately saw the potential and quickly turned our focus to immersive content creation.

When we started out, there were no stitching tools for 360° video and stills, so we applied our VFX pipelines, with Nuke software at the core, to create a quality of content that no other studio was producing. Then the CG artists with a thirst for interactivity and a skill for problem-solving started looking at Unity and UE4; suddenly we were making real-time VR experiences.

This pioneering approach and uncontrollable enthusiasm for tech, combined with a solid VFX and CGI production heritage, quickly carved a name for us. In an emerging industry where there were few with both knowledge and ability, it became apparent that we were a partner (rather than just a supplier) that could be trusted. This was incredibly important as many clients, being unfamiliar with the technology, needed to feel like they were in safe hands.

REWIND has gone from strength to strength, doubling in size each year and moving into purpose built offices in 2016. The studio now operates on a global level with 50+ staff in the UK and a growing office in San Francisco.

Q: What brands or companies are most successful in VR?

VR is truly transportive and allows the user to really feel like they are in another time, another place. Virtual reality is at its best when it offers the audience something that other formats can not. It is perfect for doing things that are dangerous, expensive, or otherwise prohibitive. Brands that play to the strengths of the medium, rather than adopt VR for tech’s sake, will succeed.

Brands getting involved with VR shouldn’t be thinking about creating ads in VR, they should be creating experiences that add value or offer something truly unique. For example, something like a virtual showroom with a try before you buy element, is much more useful and memorable than trying to replicate a traditional TV ad in VR.

Q: Are there particular brands or companies for which VR doesn't make sense?

I don’t think it’s so much about the brand, but more the idea. If it’s a bad idea, it’s still going to be a bad idea in VR. In fact, it will be worse. There’s no getting away from the content in VR, it’s strapped to your head! While you can simply ignore a badly-made advert on television by changing the channel, the all-encompassing nature of VR gives you nowhere to turn.

VR has to be done for the right reasons - to transport, to inspire, to build empathy, to give access, to educate. If it’s just about jumping on the latest tech bandwagon, it’s all wrong.

Q: When trying to build out a VR team, what backgrounds and skills should agencies look for?

At REWIND, the team is multi-faceted - a real melting pot of people from the tech, creative, games, art, film, and design worlds. With the ever-evolving tech landscape, it’s important to have a nimble and flexible team; a diverse skill set helps enormously.

While actual ability is essential, the mindset needed to succeed in this new industry is just as important, if not more so. You need people who embrace change and relish in a challenge, who have natural curiosity and thrive on problem solving; you can’t really teach these characteristics.

The single most important person in your team is the experience designer - someone with a technical and artistic eye who can think through every eventuality of the user experience. It’s a very hard role to sum up - this blog post does a fantastic job - but it is a vital role.

Q: Where do you see VR going for your clients over the next 5 years?

VR offers an amazing new marketing opportunity for brands: users aren’t just passively consuming a message, they’re participating in a brand experience. How a customer experiences a brand is becoming synonymous with how they perceive the brand, and perception is ultimately what drives today’s market. It's an opportunity to put consumers inside your brand. It's the next generation of storytelling. Plus there is an inherent power in putting users at the center of the action, letting them experience what’s happening on their own terms leads to more engagement, even empathy.

Brands are starting to realise this and they are thinking of VR as more than a gimmick, they are embracing the unique type of experience it offers and reaping the benefits of utilising this powerful media to tell their latest stories and launch their latest products. The phrase “the medium is the message'' has never been more relevant.

Over the next few years we will see more and more content being developed and the sophistication of this content progressing. The combination of VR & AI offers a big opportunity. Their integration will provide a new range of experiences and opportunities that respond in a more human way. Suddenly, that virtual environment becomes more intelligent and more personal. Taking a 3-D virtual world and combining that with a smart system that can replicate a human offers a new level of engagement

Q: What are some of your favorite VR projects you've worked on for clients? Why?

We work on the bleeding edge of technology and with the latest trends to create the seemingly impossible. We are hardware and software agnostic, we use whatever is most effective and efficient to create the best experience. From Home - a VR Spacewalk for the BBC, to Ghost In The Shell VR, to the launch of the I-PACE in VR for Jaguar, we are always pushing technology, and ourselves, to stay ahead of the curve and ensure we deliver outstanding and memorable content.

Traverse the international space station in BBC's Home - A VR Spacewalk.

Our Emmy nominated and Cannes Lions winning real-time project for HBO and Silicon Valley is something I am very proud of. The ambition was to produce a faithful recreation of the show’s iconic homebase and an interactive experience that would appeal to both die-hard fans and those who’d never watched Silicon Valley. It was modeled, textured, and lit from photo references, blueprints, and 360° room captures to ensure a highly detailed and realistic VR recreation of a TV set was possible. In addition to more than 750 moveable interactive objects, there are many iconic show elements you can play with, from the Not Hot Dog app, to taking a virtual bong hit, to helping the cast solve their toughest equation. It’s a real blast!

HBO's Silicon Valley brings to life the iconic homebase from the show in VR.

Q: What learning lessons or best practices would you share with other agencies wanting to get into VR?

Always consider your audience. Designing compelling and engaging experiences is user-centric, and wherever possible in the scoping, development, and testing phases you should engage with the likely end-user and assess their response. For example, what is the user focusing on? Which detail generates the biggest negative reaction? Which the most positive? Additionally, understanding what success looks like is important. If it is crucial that a user takes away three key points of information, but you create a purely visual feast for the eyes, you will have failed.

Focus on creating immersion. People should forget they are in a VR experience.

Post can be time consuming, but it’s worth every penny. Spend time mending 360°/ stereo video in compositing software like Nuke or Mistika to avoid painful 3D. But not everything can be fixed in post which is why pre-production preparation and planning is vital.

It’s important to address the reach issue with a smart content and marketing strategy. If you’re releasing on a platform, make sure the media gets early access for reviews; if you’ve created a VR experience for a PC powered HMD, make sure there are 2D assets for social. Amplification around the high-quality content is vital to extend reach and awareness and ensure ROI.

Lastly, working in a new medium means R&D is part of the process. Failure should be expected and even embraced - it’s only through experimentation that we can really find out what does and doesn’t work.