At Observer, our goal is to help XR developers and content creators build the best content. We believe that the community is at its best when we share our learnings and encourage each other to succeed. This is why we created the XR Creator Series, where we talk with the people helping push the industry forward. We hope to shine a spotlight on the amazing experiences people are building, as well as learn about how they got started, their development practices, and their thoughts on the future.
In this interview, we talk with Rebecca Harris of Reach Agency and Sam Margolius of SPECTACLE VR about the creation of The Extraordinary Honey Bee, a VR experience they created in partnership with Häagen-Dazs. We dig into what it was like to work with big brands on a story-driven VR experience and how they believe VR and AR will impact the marketing world. We hope you enjoy!
Observer: For those who haven’t seen the experience, can you explain what The Extraordinary Honey Bee is and how it came to be?
Rebecca: The goal of the film (or call it an experience) was really to educate people on the role that honey bees play as pollinators in our ecosystem. From a business perspective ten years ago, Häagen-Dazs created their honeybees program. This was primarily directed at the fact that a third of their ingredients are actually pollinated by bees and the bees are disappearing. Because of this, they have an invested interest in saving the bees. They have put a lot of heart into this program, partnering with the bee society and UC Davis, to really work on sustainable farming practices, understand the ecosystem, and find ways to inspire other corporations that work with farmers to make this change.
As the years progressed, they wanted to revitalize the program and find new ways to tell this story. They wanted to highlight the importance bees play in our ecosystem and bring it to a larger audience, all while trying to drive empathy for the honeybees. Here at Reach Agency, we help our partners innovate and we felt that VR was the best way to tell the story for the modern age.
Observer: How did you decide on using VR to tell this story? Was this something that Reach Agency suggested or was Häagen-Dazs asking for a VR experience specifically?
Rebecca: Häagen-Dazs’ parent company, Nestlé, is always trying to innovate and marketing departments often times have the ability to experiment with “shiny new objects”, and in this case that was VR. So our challenge was to figure out the best way to use VR to tell this story. We looked through a lot of what other brands were doing and trying to understand the best way to tell a story without it feeling like a kitschy experience. We wanted to make this meaningful and leverage the empathy-driving capabilities of VR. So it was kind of a combination of us suggesting VR and them agreeing it was the right platform for the story they wanted to tell.
Observer: What were some of the challenges you faced, both technical and not, while pitching and creating this experiences?
Sam: There were a number of different aspects to think about starting with qualifying the right storyteller and production company to partner with. We spent time early on educating the brand, making sure that the brand and agency were on the same page, and that we were telling the correct story. From there it was making sure that it could actually be done at a cost that made sense. It took time deciding on what headset we’d build for because we wanted to maximize immersion while still being able to distribute to a larger enough audience. This meant we had to explain each channel, the difference between three and six degrees of freedom, and other various technical challenges to the brand. We had to go through all of those pieces because VR is still pretty new for brands and most people hadn’t been in a headset.
Then we start getting more into the nitty gritty and began to work with Jason Zada, who has won a number of advertising awards and has a background in immersive experiences. His vision was to really blow the lid off of an experience where you become a bee or follow the bees around. While this was an amazing way to tell the story, this vantage point wasn’t easy to capture. The brand wanted something that was going to have a photorealistic feel but they also wanted live action. So as you might assume, right away we set ourselves up for numerous fun technology challenges to solve for. We needed to create a CG three-dimensional character bee that was rigged, flying, and speaking to you as your guide throughout the experience. While possible, it was super difficult to make the bee look at you and guide you through the story without it feeling like a complete joke. This took a whole lot of trial and error, we ended up overshooting a ton of stuff.
One of the cooler parts of the project was the fact that we were able to partner with great organizations like Google, HTC, and VR for Impact. Rarely do you find Google, HTC, and Nestlé working together on a content piece. A unique element was that the final experience was not really a brand-driven piece, but rather a pollinator driven piece that really focused on saving a creature that's important to our ecosystem. Having these brands come together and do that along with the agency and the production teams was incredible. Everyone played nicely because the goal was not just to sell more ice cream, or to make a ton of money, or to highlight another brand story on their agency page, instead it was all about helping the honeybee at a grand level and bring this voice to life.
Observer: What did success look like for Häagen-Dazs or other contributors to the project?
Rebecca: For the brand in general, what they wanted was awareness. They wanted awareness of the plights that the honey bees and pollinators, in general, are facing, as well as sharing what others could do to help honeybees. We accomplished this at the end of the film where Alex the honeybee says plant lilac and lavender in your backyard and to support brands or products that are bee-friendly. More broadly speaking the brand wanted a piece of content that they could use for a long time. As this program continues to be near and dear to the Häagen-Dazs brand they want to continue to tell that story for years to come. We wanted to make sure that this was cutting edge so they could use it for the next few years. The experience has been shown in Davos at the World Economic Forum to help educate the audience, as well as at Sundance in partnership with Vive.
Observer: How did you guys test the experience prior to launch?
Sam: We did internal testing for the most part once we had a working experience. I produced this thing from day one until the very, very end and I was clear from the get-go about how we wanted to approach flight, speed, and precautions around motion sickness. We also were careful in terms of our frame rates and all the nuanced post-production elements you need to do in order to ensure that you're at least setting yourself up for success. You may have noticed that there is a little jarring motion at the beginning of the experience when you first take flight. That was intentionally done and edited over time as we tested. We wanted that because it was hard to sell the idea of being shrunk down in size and then quickly transitioning into flying. The slight jitter or shock gave just enough umph to sell the idea of being a tiny flying creature.
We had to do internal testing mainly because it's a branded piece and there's a level of protection around who’s able to see it, so we couldn’t really user test in a regular way. We could have done focus groups at the onset of the project, but we were pretty sure on the story itself from the beginning.
Observer: In your close circles what is the general sentiment around VR and AR tech?
Sam: I think there are a couple different things to take into consideration. I'm not the first person to say this but I think we’re still in the Gordon Gekko age of the massive mobile phone that's 500 pounds or the AOL CD-ROM age when it comes to XR. We have quite some time before things are going to mature. Things are going to inch forward, but you still have a very tiny marketplace. The places that are showing promise in my personal opinion are VR arcades. The Void or similar locations are starting to open all over. We'll see museums begin to do more and more with XR tech too.
I think that the B2B side of it is already showing itself to be much quicker in terms of adoption. For example, I thought it was interesting to read about astronauts using the HoloLens in the International Space Station. Additionally, I see a great use case for brands to use the tech to better sell to consumers. I think the idea of a Sherwin Williams-type-of-brand being able to let you go into a room, immediately map the room, and then show you what different paint colors would look like based on the sun's angle is a compelling sales tool. I'm still really interested in to see when Apple hops in and what they bring to the table.
Observer: In terms of branding and marketing, where do you see VR and AR going in the next few years?
Rebecca: I think with VR and branding, it's a case of education. A couple of years ago we built an experience with a cat brand where we created a house party with cats around the room shot in 360. The goal was to get people to try 360 video and the brand audience loved it. While it wasn't that great in terms of standing the test of time, the brand really enjoyed it and the audience enjoyed it. The biggest learning as we continue to do 360 video, VR, and even Youtube 180, is the level of interaction and intimacy that people get with your brand through these new formats. To justify a big VR investment, there should be a real plan and strategy behind it before you start production.
Sam: Everyone, including brands, is going to have their own avatars and their own sort of digital presence. And with that comes individuality, some will want to wear Nike's and other might prefer digital loafers. Each brand will find itself building 3D assets and building out their own aesthetic for XR. At least that's my thought.
Observer: Any final words or parting input?
Sam: Jenna Pirog who was the New York Times virtual reality editor from the beginning of the NYT VR APP, called things “flatties” that weren't 360 or VR. There's a reason why “flatties” still exist and will continue to exist maybe forever. There are plenty of platforms and plenty of eyeballs that will still look at a basic 1920 x 1080 flat frame to consume content. It's perfectly fine to deliver a message there. Jumping into VR is much harder. You need to assess your audience, your timing, and your strategy to make sure VR brings the content added value and that it has the legs for it.
Rebecca: I think that both education and gaming are two very big and important sectors moving forward. Growing up we had a computer lab and that was it. Now kids have their computers with them, iPad's, laptops, whatever else in the classroom. As we move further and further away from textbooks and pen and paper, we will see VR begin to play a role.
With brands like Häagen-Dazs, doing things like sustainable farming and contributing to grander causes, I think there is an opportunity for them to educate kids, the future scientists and farmers of the world, on what's going on in the ecosystem and the world around them. It’s an opportunity to take their story and turn it into a tool. What we see with a lot of the younger consumers is that they don’t really pay attention to ads, they aren’t watching commercials, and they aren’t responding to branded content like the previous generation. This means we need to become a part of who they are and what they are doing. That is marketing 101. We can use VR to build this next evolution of branded content, leveraging gaming or other genres. There has to be that value exchange between the brand, the content, and the consumer, where the branded content contributes to the larger ecosystem instead of just being a piece of marketing.
To learn more about how Nestlé is saving the bees, check out the Häagen-Dazs® Loves Honey Bees program!