The progressive web reality is anything but virtual with Amaze’s stunning VR experience for the new Lexus NX. Here’s how they steered it home by making full use of Oculus Rift
Project: The Lexus NX launch campaign | Web: www.lexus.eu/nx
Agency: Amaze | Web: www.amaze.com
Duration: 14 months | People: 63
When we utter the phrase ‘Virtual Reality’, what are your initial thoughts? Excited or underwhelmed? Well either way, VR is an entertainment buzzword again after years of questionable PR to put it mildly.
If it isn’t Hollywood latching on to the idea for the garishly silly Lawnmower Man in the Nineties, it has been a favourite of video gaming brands for marketing an iffy glimpse of the future. In the arcades of old we had those Virtuality pods, while Nintendo tried in vain to conquer the home market with Power Gloves and Virtual Boy peripherals. In truth, Virtual Reality in 2014 has come an awfully long way since those clumsy efforts. The convergence of processing, graphics, motion detection and indeed HD displays make VR a much more viable proposition. We also enjoy an internet reality growing rapidly richer, alongside a tactile mobile experience ever essential to daily life. So by extension of concepts like Augmented Reality, VR is rearing its mounted display-clad head again in interesting ways. None more so than the recent marketing push for carmaker Lexus’ new SUV crossover vehicle, the NX.
As part of an integrated ‘Striking Angles’ campaign starring singer and tech philanthropist will.i.am, global digital agency Amaze was invited to deliver something unique. The project would “push the boundaries” in creating a “ground-breaking digital interaction” showcasing the design and driving experience at the heart of the Lexus NX. By blending computer-generated imagery with cutting-edge Oculus Rift technology, the team developed two immersive solutions for exploring the car before hitting showrooms.
Users would be able to configure the car and test drive it within eye-catching 3D environments encompassing some six miles of road and cityscapes. “As Lexus’ long-standing strategic technical and creative digital partner, we wanted to make sure we built on its heritage of craftsmanship and an underlying passion for advancing technology,” explains director of creative strategy James Deeley. “Creating a premium experience for Lexus customers was also key, and was a vital factor in our decision to use CGI rather than film-based imagery.”
It would be fair to say then that the project’s early phases were ‘fuelled’ by the existing relationship between Lexus and Amaze. The agency had a substantial awareness of the market and the equivalent content being produced by rival automotive brands. From here the determination would be to craft something distinctive, wholly unique and ambitious in scope.
With VR at the forefront, moving away from any previous similar experiences made by other companies with a rethink focusing on a style would achieve these goals. “Early on in the design process we decided that in order to create a truly impactful launch, we would use CGI rather than film, as this not only allowed us to create a premium experience, but also achieved more of a cinematic storytelling angle too,” Deeley continues. “It was a decision that not only enabled us to shift control directly into the hands of the customer, but the multidimensional and highly stylised digital landscape of this media also allowed us to truly bring the Striking Angles campaign to life. Working closely with Oculus Rift to create the experience, it gave Lexus the opportunity to satisfy its customers’ appetite for innovation, as well as the time to savour the NX’s stylisation and design.”
This desire for a seamless fit within a wider Striking Angles initiative was vital, and indeed Amaze’s remit for the project went beyond the VR experiences for this purpose. Elements such as an expanding NX House campaign hub site and NX-ify, the branded mobile camera app for iOS and Android devices, all had to be threaded into core brand activities rather than as stand-alone events in the project. These would all feed into a message communicating with a sophisticated consumer base who demand tomorrow’s experience today. “To capture the audience’s attention early on we created a teaser site content for the NX reveal at the 2014 Beijing Motorshow in April – months ahead of the car being available to the public. This teaser then evolved into the campaign hub site and acted as the living heart of the Striking Angles campaign. Titled the NX House, this site was a progressively unlocking campaign hub, teasing and responding to the campaign timeline for the forthcoming months.”
This fusion of art and technology was key then to the VR focus. The Lexus NX launch would provide Amaze with the first real opportunity to venture into this territory and experiment with what remains a formative digital medium. The approach therefore would be iterative and collaborative between the two companies throughout their 14-month life cycle. “The Lexus way is, and always has been, about continually seeking to innovate and improve, so it is well understood that we had to push ourselves at every stage. Meetings took place weekly, and often there would be daily calls too.
“As we moved into the design and production phase, we would spend days refining and suggesting updates and new ideas together, and this kind of working relationship and collaborative design effort proved to be the crucial foundation on which to build something as new and raw as the OR experiences; there was no room for anything other than exceptional.”
Such an approach would hinge on a vivid conceptual design process and the generation of visual assets for conveying a look and feel for ideas beyond what has been seen before. “Our design journey saw three distinct phases,” begins art director Wayne Silcock. “Initially, we created a storyboard of key stages to illustrate each experience. We also created a raft of supporting assets, such as mood boards to outline the visual stylisation, animation and film clips to give a sense of the emotion and sensation we aimed for. [This added to music] samples to give a feel of the tone and pace.
Details such as how the rain would look and how the city light would cast onto the wet road were all painstakingly considered. As the launch planning process progressed, we refined the visual designs of our story, as well as the city landscape. Finally, we completed a more detailed, almost frame-by-frame storyboard that outlined the full experience for both the client and the wider design and production teams. With our client happy with the design direction, we worked almost entirely in the developed build, making real-time revisions and amendments.”
WHERE THERE’S A WILL.I.AM THERE’S A WAY!
It’s not on every digital project that a ‘Black Eye Pea’ has a say in shaping the creative strategy.
As part of Lexus’ wider ‘Striking Angles’ campaign, a certain Mr will.i.am was chosen to lend his face to the marketing drive. Very much an enthusiast for innovation in music production and technology, the global pop star had to be accommodated within the overall project. This would add an extra dimension to the final phases of the schedule, stimulating some crucial decisions on user engagement.
“Towards the end of the project, we choreographed the project’s digital strategy and delivery around the introduction of will.i.am in the ‘above the line’ marketing activity”
James Deeley explains, “As the face of the campaign, our digital concepts had to provide an integrated campaign experience with will.i.am activities such as the TV commercial release dates. For these reasons we translated the OR experience into a desktop feature, where we switched head controls for a mouse as not everyone would be able to access a headset. Alongside other campaign agencies, we also developed a complementary mobile app, called NX-ify, to enable our audience to participate by creating campaign-stylised photography and video to share socially. Finally, interactivity-rich media was created for customers to sample the campaign and digital activations on brand-sponsored digital channels, such as 4oD.”
Development-wise the project leaned heavily on game-building techniques to realise the vision. Built in Unreal Engine 4, the NX car model was rendered from detailed production CAD files and the 3D city was constructed from the ground up. Unreal Engine 4 then provided valuable tools for tweaking materials, lighting and cameras rapidly – essential for revising and testing the results within the Oculus Rift headset. Audio, which is vital for driving games, would layer on immersion by feeding in-car stereo music and the roar of the NX engine. “As an agency, we handle all back-end work internally,” admits technical manager Ross Tyler. “This requires a huge amount of upfront planning to coordinate all the updates and pan-European rollout around the existing noncampaign work.
“For this particular campaign, we made the decision early on to bring an element of movement into all the digital elements and platforms. Obviously, this was more straightforward for technology like OR, but a more interesting challenge for the website. This led us to develop animated backgrounds using a Flat Surface Shader rendered on an HTML5 Canvas, giving us the control and ability to make changes in real-time.”
Development decisions such as these yielded substantial flexibility regards templates and codes, facilitating good response to fresh requirements. This meant that new features could be enabled and slotted in, such as the 360-degree video translation of the prerendered OR test drive. Aligned to the technical worries however, there were also the practical considerations of launch. The experience would need to tour car events and dealerships around the globe so it needed to remain portable and compact.
This is where a solution that avoided traditional mouse/keyboard interaction in favour of something totally controlled by head gestures would pay dividends. “These complexities took time and constant refinement during development,” reveals Deeley. “Eventually we integrated the use of a heads-up display (HUD) and eye tracking which enabled the user to have full control of their experience. There was also a need to fine-tune and address areas such as the difference between head movements for 360-degree exploring and fixing on a navigable feature, such as selecting the car exterior colour tiles. All these factors had to be considered and refined while also not detracting from the overall experience of the car itself.”
A HEAD’S UP FOR OCULUS
In addition to aligning the Lexus NX brand message with future innovation, the project also spreads the word for VR and certainly Oculus Rift.
The integration of such immersive solutions into a progressive campaign would pull consumers into an “NX-inspired world” in a bold embrace of hotly anticipated hardware available for them to use.
“We created two virtual reality technology experiences,” confirms director of creative strategy James Deeley. “The first was a head motion-controlled personalised car configurator, which enabled customers to virtually configure and view their own NX. The second, an immersive 360-degree virtual driving experience, enabled customers to ‘drive’ the new NX through a multidimensional and highly stylised urban landscape.”
“The very latest Development Kit 2 OR headsets and truly pushed the boundaries of the technology by using computer-generated rather than film-based imagery”
This ambitious push for a simulated test drive for a vehicle yet to arrive on the dealership forecourt would then rely on Oculus’ headsets. Founded by Palmer Luckey, Oculus VR was acquired by Facebook back in March 2014, with a tentative retail release for the Rift devices expected to be in 2015. With developers already accessing kits for creating targeted OR content, Amaze really are ahead of the game with this buzz technology.
“The experiences, which were rolled out across the UK and Europe, used the very latest Development Kit 2 OR headsets and truly pushed the boundaries of the technology by using computer-generated rather than film-based imagery. The launch was also the first time the industry had seen a mass rollout of the new HD devices.”
These challenges would extend beyond project “completion” with a general ethos from Amaze for the long term. With content rarely discarded and a general dislike of the ‘microsite’ model, Lexus would know that sufficient “aftercare” was built-in. This would therefore suitably support a hugely successful rollout phase and September 2014 site launch. “We generated a hugely positive response, enabling us to generate high-quality lead opportunities as well as building an engaged consumer audience for the brand,” beams chief strategy officer Rick Curtis. “We visited 13 countries to showcase the OR experience and attended 30 NX launch events over a five month period. Overall, more than 3,000 customers have tried both experiences to date.” That’s a lot of people using progressive marketing virtual reality technology to make real-life decisions on what remains a significant purchase in their lives these days.
By transferring that VR buzz and customer engagement to the website, it’s easy to understand why Amaze and Lexus feel so proud of the achievement. Content spanning 114 downloadable images, 22 on-site videos, and 38 translated site versions have all combined to record an impressive five minutes and 40 second average dwell time on the NX House domain. “The experience was rolled-out across 37 markets, launching first with a teaser site presence that had ten individual updates – totalling 373 ‘Go Lives’ overall,” concurs Ross Tyler. “We achieved over 100 per cent increase in Google Trends search returns and met all digital key performance indicators for the campaign.” In other words, there’s nothing ‘virtual’ about the ‘reality’ of this project’s success!