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Experimenting with connective experiences during and post-COVID

How we are rethinking VR activations for the near future by Angelica Ortiz

Reality becomes virtual

When it comes to making digital experiences feel more connective while physically apart or working to create deeper connections in-person, we at Havas Mango are always exploring what’s new, upcoming, and even experiences not yet created. One of the many technologies we leverage during our explorations is Virtual Reality (VR).

VR has the power to immerse participants in an environment where reality is whatever we set it to be. While VR as a technology has been available to consumers for years, it has recently seen an uptick in adoption.

In a 2020 survey of the United States, 71 percent of respondents stated that they spent more time using virtual reality during the COVID-19 pandemic than before

VR adoption has grown quickly among stay-at-home audiences seeking alternative ways to communicate than endless Zoom calls. But will this trend remain constant as cities start opening up, VR arcades are dusting off their equipment, and groups of people begin congregating safely again in the same space?

Examining the VR status quo

Before COVID, most VR activations happening in-person had 2 main configurations:

  1. Single-player VR experience where people wait in line for their turn and watch a live stream of what’s happening inside the headset.
  2. Two-player VR experience where both people have their own headsets and interact with each other in VR. The audience watches the players’ experience on a TV screen.
VR experiences are usually restricted to those in the actual VR headset…but what about the audience members not in VR? How can we make them feel included?

What’s missing with these types of configurations? The audience is a passive viewer, whether waiting in line to wear the VR headsets or gathering around the screen. There’s also a FOMO (fear of missing out) aspect to these setups, particularly for audiences who feel uncomfortable putting the headset on their face (for sanitary or comfort reasons) and are consequently unable to be a part of the experience.

In response, we have started to see VR games pursuing non-traditional VR setups through leveraging Asynchronous VR gameplay and which have set out to address this in a completely digital format. Asynchronous VR allows those outside of VR to interact with the players (who are in VR) and partake in the same experience without being immersed in VR themselves.

Image source: Slashgear.com.

A game like Acron: Attack of the Squirrels is a great example of this, where 2 or more participants play the role of squirrels using their smartphones or tablets, and 1 player (who is in VR) plays the role of a tree, defending its territory against the squirrels.

Games like these are exceptions to the norm in virtual reality, so how can we build on this type of inclusivity and functionality when applied to in-person brand experiential activations?

Bridging the gap between physical and digital

To answer this, we decided to dive into experimentation with a built-in-house prototype, aimed to create a new type of experiential activation without precedents. The concept to test out was to have a physical, analog input (button) contribute to a primarily digital medium (VR) for 2 player interaction. The 3 core components that made this prototype possible were:

Arduino representation.
  • Arduino: A microcontroller that powers physical components, like buttons, controllers, LEDs, etc. Often used for physical experiential activations
VR headset representation.
  • Oculus Quest: A standalone virtual reality headset that allows for tether-free immersive experiences
Unity3D representation.
  • Unity3D: A game engine used to create and deploy 2D and 3D experiences such as platformer web games, native-augmented reality apps, virtual reality, etc

To set up the experiment, we started with the basics: connecting the Arduino to Unity and creating a simple left-right controller using buttons. We then added simple camera functionality with the VR controllers, so the player could grab objects in the virtual environment.

An initial iteration that tests a physical button controller moving a virtual object using Unity3D and an Arduino micro-controller.

Using Oculus’s OVR plug-in, we were able to use existing prefabs to speed the process of controller implementation. There were some bugs where Quest hand tracking would work great, but when controllers were activated, it locked the hands and the related animation didn’t work.

After pouring through documentation and reviewing best practices, we felt that the haptic feedback from the controller holding the object was necessary for full immersion. So we pivoted and made it a controller-only experience, which helped with a smoother implementation and better user experience.

Representation of the user flow for this experiment.

The basics of the experience were set…but of course, we wouldn’t be Havas Mango if we didn’t add a little something extra. We dressed up the environment to have a mango be the hero with every successful throw. Using Unity’s particle system, we were able to create a micro-interaction of a mango explosion that triggered when the obstacle was hit. After some expected tweaking to get everything perfect, our prototype was complete. See how it came to life in this demo video.

Demonstrating a VR experience and controlling a virtual object by pressing buttons for a gamified experience.

A new way to experience VR in Experiential

A brand ambassador stands to the left as a participant in VR (pictured in the center) reacts to how the person at the podium (pictured to the right) is moving the virtual object using physical buttons. Participants and audience members can see this experience through the live feed streamed to the large TV screen.

Going beyond this single experiment, let’s explore some examples as a full activation for context. One iteration of this experiment as an experiential activation could be one where 2 players are facing off against each other.

Instead of both players being in VR, why not have an option where a headset is not required for one of the players to participate? A setup like this would allow for more players to join and shorter sanitizing and prep time needed in between plays.

A participant in VR (pictured left) is affected by decisions made to alter their surroundings by a participant at home on their laptop (pictured right). In this example, a laptop is shown, but the person at home could also interact via phone or physical device (eg. gaming or custom-button controller).

Another type of setup we could explore allows for interaction between participants that are physically present and those that are at home. What if a participant at home could play against a participant in the live experience? Or collaborate in real-time to work towards a common goal at the end? These are just a couple of examples, but the possibilities are endless.

Closing thoughts

With this experiment, we explored how to enhance the connection between physical components and the digital world in order to engage audiences who wouldn’t normally interact with each other in traditional VR experiences.

While this experiment focused on a physical controller, they aren’t required for this type of interaction to occur, as we know that phones will still have their place in a post-COVID experiential activation. However, having this as an alternative does 2 things: first, it combats screen fatigue from the past year of digital-only interactions; second, it opens brands up to more creative and heuristic possibilities and transforms non-VR audiences from viewers into fellow participants.

A physical device controlling a VR headset is just the beginning. The inputs pictured show alternative ways of interacting between different audiences in-person, digitally, or a mix of both.

This experiment is just the onset of exploring this type of setup for experiential activations, and we hope you’ll join us for future ones.

Have an idea you want to innovate on, explore, or bring to life? Reach out at hey-mango@havas.com, and let’s get talking.

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A collection of thinking from the team at Havas Mango

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