The Uncanny Valley of Branded Virtual Reality
It’s not that brands are bad, per se, it’s that these uses of the new medium are particularly suffocating.
With some movies, it comes as a relief that the world behind the screen isn't real, especially when it comes to giant robots destroying cities or deadly zombie plagues. So imagine my surprise when I was thrown into the middle of an incredibly overwhelming battle of Marvel's Avengers superheroes, led by Iron Man, against the robotic Ultron and his henchmen. In a virtual reality experience designed by the British studio Framestore, a flying suit and arm-guns seemed far less appealing.
Improving on a movie trailer is a difficult task. The compilation of smash cuts, impassioned voiceover, and brief snippets of dramatic dialogue is hard to beat for sheer intensity. But as technology changes, how movies are advertised is changing, too, and Framestore is at the forefront of adapting VR to cultural blockbusters that remain in two dimensions.
The studio created most of the viral VR pop-ups out there, including a virtual trip to the top of the Wall for HBO's Game of Thrones and a virtual vacation teleporter for Marriott that shoots participants to a London skyscraper and Hawaiian beach. The company is still just getting started. "It's the ultimate screen," Mike Woods, the director of Framestore's digital department, told me of virtual reality. "We use screens for departure lounges, film, games, now even with books. All of these things will be made more immersive."
It's not that brands are bad, per se, it's that these uses of the new medium are particularly suffocating
But the danger is that Framestore and others are falling into an aesthetic pattern that's driven by logos rather than creativity. In the dramatic Avengers VR trailer, I look around the room to see bullets and fireballs flying past my face in slow motion, Captain America throwing punches and Thor swinging a hammer. What strikes me as odd in the moment is that I can't see anything else in the virtual world—everything has been orchestrated by a brand, and I'm entirely alone in my helmet.
You're likely to recognize Framestore's work from its contributions to the special effects of Gravity, The Dark Knight, and Avatar, while the 2000 CGI movie Chicken Run was one of its goofier endeavors. It launched in 1986, pioneering virtual camera and motion capture techniques, and acquired the nascent Computer Film Company, another digital pioneer, in 1997, before selling CFC again in 1999. Lately, the studio has thrived with virtual reality, principally in the form of short, heavily branded pieces—VR sponsored content. Since 2014, it has completed over a dozen separate projects, one of the largest commercial portfolios in the business.
I meet Woods, a crisply-dressed man with a shaved head and the wry cast of a seasoned creative, in the curiously warren-like Soho loft that houses Framestore's New York office. The VR department is scattered with various helmets, built out of plastic and cardboard, both production-quality and hacked together. (Headsets with slots for inserting phones as screens seemed to be the major trend in consumer-level devices.) With Woods's guidance, I take in surreal VR hit after hit like an opium user hooked up to a pipe.
Yet I realize that what's most instructive about Woods's comment on the ubiquity of screens is its suggestion of VR's coming omnipresence, which goes hand-in-hand with a rather mundane normalcy. VR isn't a real-life Holodeck for your wildest dreams. Rather, it's about making any media experience that much more… experiential, whether you want it to be or not. "I love the fact that this is something that falls into a whole new discipline of creative control," Woods said, control being the operative word.
The commercial nature of the work, as opposed to the creation of feature films or video games, is driven by clear demand. "A year ago, I wouldn't have been sure that every business in America would have had a conversation at some point about whether or not [augmented reality] and VR is good for them. By now every company has had one somewhere," Woods said. "In three or four years we might start to see native things to emerge. In the short term, we have great clips, short film ideas, and great marketing."
Hence the uncanny valley of Framestore's oeuvre. The experiences take place in an immersive other reality, sure, but that reality seems to have been wholly created for the sake of businesses seeking a higher degree of consumer engagement. What's more engaging than strapping screens to your eyeballs? The world of Framestore VR is a total work of art cast in the image of Marvel, Fiat, Volvo, and Paramount. It's as if Damien Hirst had been sponsored by Miramax.
At Framestore, I float through the spaceship of Interstellar, craning my neck around in virtual space to take in the sheer level of detail of the interior Woods and his team rendered, which is modeled from the movie. I sit through a wan commercial for the Fiat 500X, in which a dapper magician inexplicably performs card tricks in front of me before I take the car out for a spin. I tread through a rendering of the actual lobby of the Baltimore Marriott.
These environments are all intricately detailed and impressive, but they're also strange and corporate in their slickness. Notably, the early Game of Thrones piece feels the most authentic. Branding becomes impossible to escape without taking the helmet off. No wonder business is booming—these projects certainly aren't done for the good of consumers, who might experience them at a convention or pop-up presentation but remain unlikely to view them at home. Brands simply want to propel a simple message: that they understand the future.
There's no denying that the experiences are impressive, but the nascent technology's sandbox feels smaller than it needs to.
We talk about the virtual, illusionistic portion of VR more often than the reality part. Whose reality are we being thrust into: an open-source, hacked-together environment made by an artist with obvious affection, or a desiccated rehash of creative direction from the same people who bring you Super Bowl commercials and Budweiser's sponsored LARP "Whatever, USA"? It's not that brands are bad, per se, it's that these uses of the new medium are particularly suffocating. It's like VR advertising hasn't learned that we don't need to be bombarded to get the message, as the Fiat experience demonstrated in its oozing enthusiasm.
When Woods tells me "we're not very far away from making things that look completely real," it suggests to me not the realm of otherworldly but realistic adventures that VR once promised but the virtual equivalent to Facebook ads that pop up in the midst of a stream of posts from friends. "These are like televisions at the end of the day," Scott Broock, the vice president of content at Jaunt, another VR content producer, told me.
Perhaps there was never a chance that we would get the revolutionary version of VR, or that stage comes later in its development. Yet that the technology has been co-opted so thoroughly and so early make me worry that it will end up with an Andy Warhol aesthetic rather than Picasso—a reflection of commercial culture rather than the creation of a new visual language. Surely we can do better.