Rewards By Design

Virtual Theaters Deliver for Hennessy, ITT, and AT&T


What do you get when you combine a quarter million gallon cognac barrel, a French chateau, a double decker bus, and twelve virtual reality systems? Although you might expect a virtual hangover of epic proportions, the right answer is: a 600% increase in Hennessy cognac sales. Although Virtual Reality has been used increasingly for the past couple of years to promote various products, only recently have these promotions achieved such stellar results. This comes from the often painful realization by VR producers that each marketing campaign is unique and that proper planning and creative design is essential to achieving positive outcomes.

The delivery vehicle is a giant mock up of an oak cognac aging barrel. Completely encased in this barrel is a double decker bus, in which is contained the 12 seat Virtual Theater on the first floor, and a replica of the interior of a French Chateau upstairs. Guests first take a seven minute ride in the motion seats and head mounts of the theater, and then go upstairs to be served cognac by hostesses in 18th century French costumes. The "barrel" has already been touring for one year out of its planned two year trek, but the bus is slated for new productions after this one has finished its run. Already Hennessy plans several additional installations in other Far East locations.

How did this VR production, which spanned three continents and five time zones, get started? Thailand, it turns out, is one of the largest markets for distilled spirits in the world. The marketing managers at Hennessy Cognac in France and Bangkok understood that cognac is a sophisticated drink, and that such refinement needed to be cultivated in the increasingly well-to-do Thai public. Cognac, like the wine it is distilled from, is a complex blend of delicate spirits. To those educated in the subtleties and rituals of cognac, it is a delight not easily forgone. Hennessys challenge in Thailand was how to raise awareness of their product.

The cognac drinking public in Thailand is primarily well educated, well to do, 20 to 40 year olds, many of whom have heard of Virtual Reality, but few of whom have had actual exposure to it. Although there have been VR promotions for distilled spirits in the US, they suffer from unrewarding content and the low throughput typical of single participant systems. In order to educate and promote cognac to a broad audience, the virtual experience had to be accessible to at least a thousand people per day, not the 50 or 100 which conventional systems typically handle.

Compelling content combined with specific marketing messages was also of paramount importance to Hennessy. Fortunately Hennessy cognac has a rich and colorful history, and it was decided early on that a historical dramatization would be their vehicle. StrayLight Corp. (Warren, NJ), having produced numerous promotional events for US and European firms, was brought in to design and implement both the Hennessy system and content.

Working with the marketing managers in both Bangkok and Cognac, StrayLight realized that in order to achieve the high guest throughput Hennessy wanted and the detailed historical presentation, a Virtual Theater would be the only and best solution. These theaters boast anywhere from 10 to 30 motion seats with stereoscopic head mounted displays, and offer an experience much like a Disney Epcot style ride where the guest is propelled along a virtual track from scene to scene. Because the level of interactivity is lower than with other systems, the guests are not left guessing what their next move is, and instead are immersed in 3D imagery, sound, and motion of significantly higher quality than available on other VR systems. Another advantage of StrayLights Virtual Theater system is its ability to incorporate real world 3D imagery through a special image capture system.

StrayLight was fortunate to have Michael Denison as Production Director on the project. In addition to Michaels long list of achievements in film, video, and interactive media, he has spent much of the last twenty years in Thailand on various projects and thus was well qualified to address the Thai audience. There are a number of cultural differences in the expectations of Thai audiences toward dramatic productions. Denison incorporated many of these to help produce Virtual Theater content that would best appeal to the Thais.

In addition to the computer based imagery and audio content developed by StrayLight, the production involved interior and exterior location shots in Cognac and Los Angeles. The use of helicopter and steadicam with the specialized image capture system gives the audience a thrilling first person perspective on the 18th century battle which brought Richard Hennessy his fame and fortune, followed by a lush tour through his 200,000 hectare estate. The battle is carefully choreographed with the motion seats and often leaves the theater guests gasping.

This was not an isolated installation for StrayLight, as they pioneered this technique early in 1994 for the trade show industry. StrayLight debuted a 26 seat theater for CableTron Systems at the Networld+Interop show and have recently delivered theaters for The American Hotel & Motel Association, ITT Corporation, and two productions for AT&T Wireless Systems.

StrayLight works very closely with exhibit designers and fabricators. As exhibit builders provide the creativity and ingenuity for the booth design, StrayLight supplies the equipment and production (seats, HMDs, electronics, software, etc.), staffing, and technical assistance.

The number of ways to present the theater is unlimited. CableTron Systems set their Virtual Theater inside a 20ft x 20ft x 15ft replication of their new product, the MMAC-PLUS. Attendees lined-up along the perimeter of the theater and watched the guests experience VR. However, AT&T's design was quite different. To create a mystery, AT&T concealed the Virtual Theater inside a 20ft high theater-in-the-round. Accented with lights and lasers, this circular structure included meshed metal panels and was crowned with a large purple dome.

The AT&T installation was developed as a trade show application utilizing 14 motion seats and stereoscopic head mounts. In this case, the content utilized computer based imagery for the entire four minute experience as guests were whisked through the wireless network of the future. At its debut during CTIA/Wireless 95, in February, almost half of the shows 10,000 attendees were able to enjoy the AT&T experience. "This production interweaves both exciting entertainment and marketing messages inside a fully immersive experience", says Victoria Massulli, StrayLights project director. "For instance, the high speed skiing experience in the Swiss Alps is punctuated by use of a personal digital assistant. The virtual guest communicates over a wireless network to plan and shop for a surprise birthday party later in the day. Party guests attend both in person and virtually, just as our trade show guests do!"

ITT Educational Services has already rolled out 8 out of a planned 60 Theater systems produced by StrayLight. Unlike the Hennessy and AT&T installations, ITTs must handle upwards of 200 guests per experience. To achieve this high level of throughput, the head mounted displays and motion seats were dispensed with and polarized stereoscopic glasses are used instead. While there is no individual interaction in this experience, the high quality 3D graphics more than compensate. ITT uses these systems on a touring basis to recruit students for their highly regarded technical schools. These schools train skilled technicians for various high tech fields including computer aided design, electronics, and mechanical design. "What better way to market the leading technology educator, than through leading edge technology", says Glenn Tanner, Director of National Marketing for the ITT division. "These kids will be the driving force in the technologies of the future."

The team at StrayLight is keenly aware that their Virtual Theaters just begin to scratch the surface of whats possible. Scott Lavender, StrayLights Director of Engineering, says: "We have solved the issues of production values, image quality, and throughput, but our current challenge is to increase the level of interactivity without sacrificing our existing achievements." Full individual interactivity has been an enormous hurdle for producers of large scale VR systems. Because each participant needs their own high quality image and sound generator, costs can be extremely high per seat. Although budget priced systems can be assembled, production values and image quality often get left behind.

"Were rolling out a new system architecture late in 1996 which will provide full texture mapped interactive graphics in a theater environment" says Lavender. "The good news is that it will hit the street at about 10% of the price of existing architectures." Should StrayLight achieve this price point, their VR Theaters should have broad appeal, not only for promotional applications, but also in more conventional entertainment venues as the cost per seat is actually superior to many amusement and theme park rides.

Nonetheless, most system producers insist that its the quality of the experience, rather than the technology which counts the most. "We tap into our guests emotions. Theyll scream in terror or laugh out loud because of the content in the Virtual Theater, not because of the specific hardware or software", says Massulli. "VR hardware is like the cable TV wire which comes into your home. Its nice to have a good wire, but its most important to have great programming flowing in on that wire. Thats the part that most VR companies forget!"

Indeed, beginning in 1994, and continuing into 1996, the VR community, and the public at large, has moved from pure fascination with VR technology into being more sophisticated consumers of content with less regard for the delivery platform. The design and implementation of the experience have finally surpassed the machines which deliver it.