Innovation

How Kite and Lightning creates brand experiences with virtual reality

As companies look to get a jump on branding and advertising through virtual reality, several are turning to Los Angeles-based Kite and Lightning.

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Image: Kite and Lightning

Marketers want audiences to connect with their brands. It's simple. It might be through a particularly well-made commercial, or a tweet that merited a favorite.

Increasingly, technology becomes the means by which brands try to make those connections.

Some brands are now turning their attentions to virtual reality and wondering what they could do with a brand experience that's entirely immersive.

One creative design studio sitting at the intersection of brands and VR is Los Angeles-based Kite and Lightning.

Kite and Lightning was started by Ikrima Elhassan and Cory Strassburger. Both started off creating visual effects for films. Strassburger worked more on the art side. He'd been involved with TV shows from the X Files to movies like Minority Report.

Elhassan's background was visual effects research and development, and he'd worked at Intel.

Around the time the first iPad was coming out, Elhassan and Strassburger were experimenting with augmented reality (blending the real world with digital elements).

"We wanted to do the same things that we do in film, for example, take what they did with Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button to make a digital double so we could make digital doubles of people and put them in AR," Elhassan said.

One early test involved Budweiser — Kite and Lightning created a digital double of a model for augmented reality coaster.

When they got their Oculus Rift headsets a little more than a year ago, Elhassan said it was an immediate transition. Virtual reality felt like the culmination of much of what they wanted to do with AR and incorporating cinematic style to their work. They decided to go full time.

Kite and Lightning produced a 6-minute virtual reality mini opera in June called Senza Peso, which tells the story of a journey through the underworld. It attracted attention, and led to partnerships with a few notable brands.

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Image: Kite and Lightning

In the summer, Kite and Lightning worked with NBC to create a VR experience to coincide with the premiere of the fall season of the Voice. The end product was a traveling installation where people could sit in one of the big red chairs like they'd see on the Voice, and be guided through judging an audition by celebrity judges Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani, and Pharrell.

With virtual reality, NBC was able to provide a branded experience for fans — and an experience that would be otherwise inaccessible for most.

Similarly, Kite and Lightning worked with GE to create a VR experience where the viewer got into a submersible and travled to the bottom of the ocean to get a look at GE's oil and gas recovery technology off the coast of South America.

"Once you put on the headset, you feel like you're somewhere else, and it's an easy way to communicate some of the things that are a little more science-y and dry in a way that's really visual and beautiful and engaging," Elhassan said.

GE's head of global digital programming, Katrina Craigwell, explained the larger story she wanted to get across, and helped put Elhassan and Strassburger in touch with GE scientists to learn about the technical aspects of the oil and gas technologies so the experience could be as informative as possible.

At an event in Rio where the sub sea experience made its debut, Elhassan said it was obvious why brands are interested in virtual reality, and why many think it's 'what's next.'

From the mayor of Rio to the CEO of GE's young daughter, everyone who tried the sub sea mission felt an impact, Elhassan said.

"It's been across the board the same level of emotional impact... I think from the brand perspective, it seems like that's exactly the type of thing that you would want to get into as a brand, something that allows you to reach a wide array of demographics or cross cultural differences," he said. "It's a super powerful thing for a brand marketer."

That said, even though virtual reality has existed and been talked about for a long time, it might be a while before it hits the mainstream.

Elhassan said creating these experiences takes a massive amount of computing power to handle the 75 to 90 frames per second required to fool the brain into thinking it's in the same room as Pharrell.

And while the impulse with virtual reality is to want to fly or run at 70 miles an hour, those experiences can make a person sick.

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Image: Ikrim Elhassan

"It's so real when you do it, your brain immediately is like 'Oh wait, as a human being I can't do all these things,'" Elhassan said. Everyone has a different threshold for motion sickness and a lot of work has to be done in order to create a comfortable experience.

Still, for now, virtual reality, broadly, is out of the hands of most consumers and it's unclear how long that will be the case.

"While it is true that motion sensors are getting cheaper and smaller, that smartphones have ubiquitous computing power, it is far from being mainstream," said Forrester vice president and principal analyst Thomas Husson. "Of course, Facebook's acquisition of Oculus Rift for $2 billion raised lots of questions and generated lots of interest but it is not yet a consumer product."

Recent news on the VR front includes Samsung's announcement at CES this week that users of its Samsung Gear VR headset will be able to access their Milk streaming service, including 360-degree streaming videos and virtual reality channels.

"Don't get me wrong, the promise of virtual reality looks significant but I think it will mostly be limited to entertainment-based apps like gaming or movies," Husson said.

His view on the relationship between VR and brands is measured: "We're not at a stage yet where brands can benefit from any reach — this is mostly away to appear as innovative and to test technologies that will offer new niche opportunities in the coming years."

Though, that effort to be seen as innovative and test technologies might be a lesson learned from recent times when some were wary of embracing say, the internet. Or social media — those tech-driven shifts that never went away.

And brands like GE, NBC, HBO, Lexus, Volvo, even hotel chains like Marriott are perhaps hoping they won't be the ones left behind if the long-flickering promise of virtual reality finally materializes in the mainstream.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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