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Here's how we placed emotion at the heart of the Defender VR experience

22 October 2019

In this article, Digital Creative Lead, Tony Currie, takes us through the making of Jaguar Land Rover's new VR experience that relaunched the iconic Defender at Frankfurt Motorshow.

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Five years ago, Imagination, together with Jaguar Land Rover, started a programme of work called the ‘Innovation Lab’. This platform showcases key product benefits through the lens of technology and innovation.

For the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be the Digital Creative Director over this exciting body of work. Last year we broke apart the dual branding of Jaguar Land Rover and created two separate labs - one for Land Rover and one for Jaguar. Focusing on Jaguar we introduced the world’s first AI cat. Check it out below:

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After the success of the Jaguar Catwalk (read Tony's article about its making) Land Rover was in need of a world-class experience to restore a balance between the two innovation brands and the launch of the new Defender was an ideal project in which to do that.

The strategic platform: Capable of Great Things

“Capable of Great Things” was the internally facing strategic platform the new Land Rover Defender would be presented from. This was a bit of a north star for the project, knowing full well this spirit would need to be captured in both idea and story.

With the focus very much on Defender we needed an idea that carried the spirit of “Capable of Great Things” whilst linking in with the wider comms and identity of Land Rover’s most iconic SUV. As other Imagination teams were working on the PR launch and comms direction, we knew Defender would be presented with five key environments: Urban; Ice; Coastal; Forest; Desert. We knew that Land Rover wouldn’t launch Defender unless it was the most capable premium SUV on the market; it was going to set a new bar for other brands to aspire to. Our experience needed to be worthy of the global attention this innovative vehicle was going to generate.

We wanted to position a single experience made up of multiple macro experiences leading into a hero immersive moment. Across this landscape and inclusive of our hero moment, we would deliver all of the product stories. This fast developed into the realisation our hero moment would be something people would want to queue for, and it’s in this queue, in Disney-style theatre, we deliver most of the product messaging; connecting the entire experience.

A successful immersive experience is built on a good story, where each moment of the story is justified. As with all of these physical experiences we absolutely have to amplify beyond the physical and truly leverage digital and social platforms. We know the power of a personalised takeaway piece of content, and if the content is in-tune with the master story narrative it will almost demand to be shared on social media.

We set the following principles to guide our creative process in curating a narrative and concept that could meet both Land Rover and Imagination’s own benchmark of experiential experiences.

  1. Transformative – transform perception of the Land Rover and Defender

  2. Aspirational – aspire users to dream of a Land Rover Defender adventure

  3. Memorable – remember the experience, remember Defender

  4. Inspiring – Inspire users to feel ‘capable of great things’

  5. Multi-sensorially – make users an active part of the story

  6. Excite – make people smile

  7. Scalable – go beyond global auto shows

Formulating the idea

Coming up with an idea that met our creative principles wasn’t simple. The most important step was to nail the narrative, and not to post-rationalise a narrative to meet a cool piece of immersive tech.

When starting the process, the one thing I wanted to avoid was anything that tried to virtually place the user in the seat of a Defender. This is something I don’t believe in. The real thing, currently, is much better than a simulated experience. I wanted people to watch the Defender in action, in the challenging environments it calls home, but I also wanted people to feel empowered and be part of a mission – not just passively observe. All of these elements needed to come together in a way that felt totally authentic.

After a few false starts, it landed. What if the participants job was to be part of the launch? What if their job was to document Defender as it showcased its capability in challenging and epic environments? So, the idea of creating a Land Rover ‘Special Ops Media Team’ was born. The participant would be a new budding photographer joining the team and would be tasked with capturing Defender carrying out various epic missions around the world. The only way to capture Defender in action, would be by air; Helicopter style. This rounded the capability circle - both the Defender and the user are capable of great things.

VR was immediately identified as the most likely way to deliver such an experience and selecting Oculus Rift S as our target HMD (Head Mounted Display) hardware only made more sense when we knew the Oculus Quest (portable consumer HMD) could also be targeted; ticking our tactical approach for scalability.

A trio of characters (a pilot and two Defender drivers) would form a dialog that would both inform the user on what to do whilst providing valuable information about the vehicle’s innovation and technology capability. All delivered through a comms network and well written narrative.

After hearing the great news that Bear Grylls would potentially be part of a launch campaign, the character of “team lead” was created before a creative vision was penned and successfully presented to Land Rover.

And so the real work began, by breaking down the experience into its macro level and building the story.

Developing the story

After identifying four hero innovation and technology stories that were both considered high priority to communicate, as well as feeling like they could authentically be covered in the experience, we got to work putting a storyboard together. See below some of the early work.

We created an onboarding scene that educates the user on gameplay, and four other scenes, each focusing on an environment with a specific Defender model and technology story. To keep things simple the user just needed to look at the Defender, compose the shot and press a button. Using multiple Defenders allowed us to avoid trying to explain how one car could move across such a wide geographical spectrum as well as introducing a diverse range of characters; each with their own personalities to add a bit more depth and engagement to the narrative. We took some creative license by transitioning between environments rather than in real time and added drama and peril with the movements of the helicopter. Cinematic moments were created for each hero shot of Defender, all aligned with the product ‘heights and angles’ prescribed for all media comms, giving it an additional layer of authenticity as well as policing (to a degree) the quality of any virtual shots taken.

To help prepare the users, a mission briefing was created. This would be part of the queue experience to reinforce the story, removing the demand to overload users whilst immersed in VR. After getting a rundown on the technologies used in the experience, the team lead, Bear Grylls, was to give the users some inspiration and capture the sense of adventure. Bear was responsible for setting the purpose of each chapter and appears at the beginning of each sequence, setting the scene and highlighting the challenges. All of this happening in the queue, the first step in extending the experience outwards and creating a bigger overall experience for the audience; Disney style.

User journey

We needed to create an engaging, informative and experiential journey all the way to the VR experience and beyond. Our framework could be broken down into nine parts.

  1. Attract

  2. Engage

  3. Interact

  4. Data Capture & Personalisation

  5. Mission Briefing

  6. VR

  7. Leaderboard

  8. Email photographic souvenir

  9. Share

The Defender VR experience design

With our nine checkpoints identified we distributed our product stories across this landscape of interactivity before creating a brief for the 3D Design team to work from.

Even from my initial sketch you can see the ambition to ensure the experience itself is an attractor is a clear objective as well as moving the queuing people towards the back – out of sight. But its only from the development of the approach done by our UX and 3D design teams do you see the journey taking shape.

The 3D team did a great job of capturing the spirit of the experience with their early sketch work that you can see clearly set the tone of what was eventually delivered in Frankfurt.

The fourth dimension

It’s very difficult to design an authentic immersive experience without understanding fully the medium you are designing for. Leaving no stone unturned the team set off for some extreme helicopter flying. To keep it as authentic as possible we asked for the doors to be removed; we wanted to feel all of the vibrations, the wind, the G-Force in order for our experience to be as real as possible.

Understanding the real feeling of G-Force whilst flying about in our helicopter allowed us to rethink how we would replicate that feeling in the virtual world. We had to look at both what the helicopter is doing but most importantly how does it feel. So, an aggressive bank to the left would immediately throw your force to the right before your middle ear levels itself and you feel like you are going left. To reach this level of feeling we needed to work with a motion platform that would respond with the levels of sensitivity and physical angles we needed.

Unreal & CG

The next step in visual production was to start mapping out the mix of environments our new Defenders would be exploring. After our research we knew what the best feelings were from being in a helicopter. A huge learning from the helicopter flying research was that when you’re up high things seem slow; which helped us focus the flight paths to be much lower. This also allowed us to avoid rendering too much of the landscape, keeping the fidelity nice and high.

Landscape and product fidelity were extremely important in this project and with the speed at which production would need to happen, the only way we could produce the quality we desired was with the Unreal Engine. Unreal allowed for a really dramatic environment that felt less like a computer game and more like the genuine thing. See below concept mock-up.

Any digital asset of a car, especially a car as anticipated as the new Land Rover Defender needed to look perfect. Fortunately, this wasn’t an issue for Unreal and with the engine’s high-performance levels and ability to manage a huge amount of polygons whilst maintaining a consistently high framerate (important for VR); very quickly we were able to develop a first class experience.

Result

The Defender needs to be experienced to be truly understood. We created an integrated launch campaign to emotionally connect all consumers with the iconic product. Our adrenaline-fuelled VR experience transports audiences to dramatic landscapes to witness the most capable SUV in action.

Everybody who completes the full experience receives a personalised video souvenir shared directly to Facebook to lower the barrier for instant amplification beyond the physical space and into the digital social landscape. See below example.

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The experience made its debut at the Frankfurt auto show and has already been to a number of other events since. Proof is in the pudding so they say, and seeing everybody exit the experience with big smiles and commenting so positively on the story, the visuals and the level of immersion experienced was great to see. Below are some visuals from both the Frankfurt auto show, where we delivered 6 pods and also Build: Munich an Unreal Engine conference. Next up will be a quest version to reach a bigger audience followed by more events and popups.