The First Ever Interactive Super Bowl Ad

The eko Devs
ekoEngineering
Published in
8 min readFeb 14, 2020

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Image by P&G

Last week we achieved something that’s never been done before: our tech powered the first-ever interactive advertisement to air during the Super Bowl. It was an ambitious and exciting project for us, both technically and personally but we rose to the challenge and delivered. It was a long journey, with a strong sense of accomplishment once we finally saw the eko logo pop up on the screen during the big game.

Watch the interactive ad and make your own version!

Let’s back up a minute though — what is an interactive ad anyhow? Well, the term “interactive” means that the final ad could (and did) change up until the very last moment when it aired during the game’s fourth quarter.

Divya Mahadevan, eko developer: “Nobody knew which version of the ad would be played up until the last minute! Not even me!”

How did that work?

Opher Vishnia, eko developer: “First, viewers visited the project’s microsite on whenwecometogether.com. This site embedded an interactive video created with eko studio in which viewers picked their favorite version of the ad. Behind the scenes, each viewer choice was considered a “vote”, and the voting data was saved to a Firebase Firestore.

Our live dashboard which displayed what America chose in real-time

To air the ad version selected by user choices, we wrote software that pulls the voting data from Firestore and uses it to determine which version of the ad to play. Here’s the thing though, when you air content for an event as big as the Super Bowl, you can’t afford to have anything go wrong. We had to implement fail-safes for EVERYTHING.“

Roy Taragan, eko developer: “Usually in the software world you feel more secure with your code. Here we had to analyze every conceivable failure point. There was zero room for errors.”

What happens if the program can’t access Firebase? Pull the data from a backup on Amazon S3, which was fed by a periodic ETL. What if the fetched data is corrupted? Validate all data fetched against a schema, and make sure to save an incremental version in case a data file is invalid. Oh, and what about the OS? The last thing we wanted was a “Windows update” popup appearing during the Super Bowl! Everything was tested again and again — nothing was left to chance.

The software was then installed on specialized hardware, with the capability to output video to broadcasting equipment. We configured two of these machines, dubbed “ekoBox Orange” and “ekoBox Blue” as a primary unit and secondary backup to be run in parallel. These were installed in the Fox Studio control room, connected to the cable network’s infrastructure, ready to broadcast the ad using eko tech to millions of Super Bowl viewers.

Roy: “I worked on everything from how to display choices viewers made in real-time on the interactive ad, to hacking shady PowerShell scripts on the ekoBox to make sure the mouse cursor stayed hidden during the airing of our ad.”

Our Super Devs at the Super Bowl

In the two weeks leading up to the big game, our Super Bowl ground team — talented eko engineering devs Divya from NYC and Louai from Tel Aviv — were hard at work at the Fox Studio lot integrating our tech and making sure the hardware and software was up to code and passed all security requirements.

Divya and Louai, eko’s ground team on the Fox Studios lot

Louai Ghalia, eko developer: “It was such an incredible experience that I can’t even put it into words. To be part of the the biggest TV event in the states, airing an ad that is televised to more than 200 million viewers, is something very few people get to experience. Both Divya and I are relatively new at eko, and the fact that we got to take lead of the Super Bowl ground team gave us a huge sense of trust in us and our abilities. It felt good to have the responsibility for such an important project to the company. I truly appreciate it and I think these sorts of things can only happen at eko. It’s part of our DNA.”

Asaf Menahem, eko developer: “We’ve prepared our tech to withstand a huge scale of viewers and votes. Even simulating this type of scale for testing purposes is a challenge. When load-testing, you want the different users to hit your servers in parallel, not from the same machine or IP. We’re talking about the capability to support hundreds of thousand of people watching and voting at the same time.”

There were a lot of unknowns during the development process in the months leading up to the game. For example — on the live-event side, what actually takes place in the control room? Who tells who what and when to play? On the technical side — how does a machine physically interface with the broadcasting equipment? What video and audio format would we need to output? During our Proof-of-Concept phase, we developed and tested many different technologies and options, including voting via SMS, syncing video playback on the TV with playback of an interactive experience on mobile and more, until we arrived at the finished product. The fog surrounding all of these questions got clearer and clearer as we approached the airtime deadline.

Shai Rosenberg, head of QA: “The eko QA team is used to testing high-profile projects, but when it comes to scale, nothing beats the Super Bowl. We looked at the content and technology from a bird’s-eye view. It was our responsibility to make sure everything was working as-designed, end to end. From the interactive project to collecting the votes, the ekoBox, and the vote fetching mechanism, through integrating with P&G’s website and Fox’s broadcasting hardware, and finally to the eyes of Super Bowl viewers.”

The extra challenge was accommodating for the fact requirements and specifications were constantly evolving. In addition, many people were involved in the process including developers, video editors, UX experts, creatives and executives. Not only that but the QA team had to make sure the project plays smoothly and looks great on almost every device out there: smartphones, desktops, tablets and more. They had to be on top of the entire process and test until the very last minute.

Asaf: “This project felt like an important moment for the company. Our dev team had to deal with lots of responsibility, pressure and excitement, as well as many, many unknowns. It was only a few of us working on this at eko, with limited time to build, test and deploy the tech, moving fast alongside big corporations with many stakeholders, opinions and processes. Even the landscape of requirements was fluid and dynamic.”

Finally, the big day came. The air was buzzing with excitement. The ekoBoxes were installed, tested, and hooked up. Our ground team was on-location making sure that the real-time voting data was coming in and that the interactive ad was seamlessly screened.

Louai: “The actual day of the Super Bowl was crazy. Security was extra tight. We received VIP badges, which allowed us to enter the broadcasting room. It kind of felt like we received access to the CIA or something. It was amazing and surprising to see how Fox handled the broadcast. How many people are involved, how they coordinate and countdown to ad airing times, how they communicate between the Miami and LA studios, and of course timing the moment until our ad aired.”

Divya: “My scariest moment was right before the beginning of our ad break! We knew the next ad break was ours, but we didn’t know how much game time there would be before they went to the ad break. The anticipation was killing me!”

Louai: “The Fox operation war room is huge. I’ve never seen so many screens and monitors in my life. We had access to see how everything worked behind the scenes in real-time. We were well received. We had our own control room and the Fox people called it ‘the eko room’.”

And there you have it. During the 3rd ad break of the 4th quarter, Sofia Vergara caused a giant chili bowl to splatter LAMP MAN and Rob Riggle landed from the sky as Bounty Man to help save (clean?) the day. All of these choices and more were made by viewers and coalesced into a final ad mere moments before it actually aired.

Divya: “People were very interested in how our tech worked and really excited to see where ads like this could go in the future! It was a big learning experience for us, Fox, and P&G — I think everyone came away with ideas for the future and how we can iterate on it for even cooler, more interactive advertising! This was an entirely new pipeline and workflow that Fox was experimenting with; We were told they had never before allowed an outside computer to be installed in the Super Bowl broadcast room.”

Roy: “I love football and watch the Super Bowl every year. This year I had much more reason to pay attention to the ads, though. It feels amazing to work on a project that’s so large in scale, scope and gravity.”

As Sofia mentioned, “Football really does bring everyone together”. In our case, our tech brought all these viewers together for the first-ever choice-driven, interactive Super Bowl ad. That’s one HUGE, awesome watch party!(Even though for us devs working on Tel Aviv time, “watch party” actually meant making sure everything’s running smoothly at 4 a.m.)

Louai: When we said goodbye to the Fox team, they told us “See you next year, eko team! Maybe this time with two interactive ads?”

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