News & Views

Bitmap Banshees / The Art of VR

by Contagious Team

Riding a bike around Amsterdam is a great way to experience the picturesque city. But what if the trees glowed electric purple, locals turned into fierce punk banshees and the only way of surviving was to collect psychedelic carrots? We’re not talking about over-doing it at the cafes, but a new virtual reality experience created by Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam.

Bitmap Banshees exemplifies how attention to craft, design and tone can take VR experiences to a whole new level. It’s the first project to come out of the agency’s department of new realities, a team dedicated to exploring creative possibilities with technologies such as augmented and virtual reality.

The game involves users peddling on a real, stationed bike while wearing a customised Oculus headset. Meandering through Amsterdam streets, recreated in a new punk aesthetic, players need to avoid the attack of banshee creatures (modelled on real people who work at the agency). The installation is currently set up at Wieden + Kennedy’s Amsterdam office, but will also be available for delegates to try at Most Contagious this year. To find out what have they learned about working with VR we spoke to creative directors Geoffrey Lillemon and Anita Fontaine.

What does the department of new realities do?

GL: In the department of new realities, the client service model is part of what we do but our vision is creating new IP. It’s about doing things like Bitmap Banshees and presenting that at gaming conferences and places where there are content hungry beasts. We call them culture projects but it’s a more than that. We make things first that we think are right and interesting, that are benefiting what people need. That approach is opening doors, clients are buying into it. It’s a new kind of model.

AF: We want to avoid using the word experimental because we, plus Eric [Quennoy, ECD] and Mark [Bernath, ECD], see this as the future of the agency. We believe that this kind of structure is important for making beautiful work. It’s so we can understand how to create the best possible destination in this digital realm for people.

How did you guys come up with the idea for Bitmap Banshees?

GL: When you make virtual spaces, it’s important to connect people to the environment that they’re in. So the inspiration came from thinking, alright, let’s take the things familiar to people within Amsterdam, like the hustle of getting chased down by middle-aged Dutch chicks on bikes. It’s a daily grind problem for everybody. We thought it would be interesting to go from a familiar environment into a virtual environment that hyper-sensationalises that feeling and problem. It just naturally developed itself into a game.

AF: We were imagining the future and thinking about climate change and a dystopian science fiction angle, but also of a future where we’re spending 50% of our time or more inside VR. That comes with the potential for these digital avatars to kind of torment us. So it’s a teaser into the future. We want to make a little cheeky comment about the current understanding of what these digital realms are.

Do agencies need new skill sets in order to create these experiences?

GL: I think it’s important that production capabilities are in house. We want to make all this stuff, we don’t want to be selling things through subjectively. It can be hard to translate on paper and then just hand it over to a production company and expect it to be done. We’re trying to do what feels right and that requires a hand in the craft itself. We want to make new things and experiment and say, maybe that’s right, maybe it’s not. We want to build a production model in house.

AF: This is a new genre of experience. It’s not quite gaming, cinema, spots or print. Yet it still has the strengths of storytelling. I think that agencies just have to get their hands dirty and start making this type of work. It’s the future of content and brand experiences. VR experiences are going to be normal places for people to hang out, so I think it’s important that everyone’s jumping in or at least trying to own this space a bit more.

What have you guys learned about working with VR so far?

GL: The reason that gaming is interesting for atmospheric VR worlds, is that the digital content reacts and knows that you are there. And that’s very important because otherwise you’re just stuck in a voyeuristic void. When the computer and the technology is aware of you, it brings a certain kind of realness to situations. We’re thinking about how people can dance with the technology. What AI is doing to character behaviour is something that we’re very focused on as well as the social aspects of VR, like how you can interact with your friends in these new worlds. This is where our heads are at.

Any final advice to people looking to create VR experiences?

GL: Just imagine new realities where the constraints of the world that we live in now are lifted.