The New Realities of Art and Commerce

Two pioneers in the art of reshaping reality discuss the present and future of brand VR.

+AMSSeptember 22nd 2017

In 2018, questioning our current reality, and trying to conjure some different, better, one, is an increasingly popular pastime. For Anita Fontaine and Geoffrey Lillemon, it’s a fulltime job. And few are better qualified to do it.

The longtime collaborators and interactive art pioneers blended digital and physical worlds, new technology and traditional media, time and space, and art and commerce into a genre-spanning array of work with their influential creative studio, Champagne Valentine. They now lead Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam’s Department of New Realities, a creative unit devoted to exploring and creating new kinds realities via AR, VR, gaming, and experiential installations. The division melds technology, theatrics, 3D animation, graphic design, sculpting, fashion, and other disciplines in a hybrid creative entity that has spawned everything from self-initiated psychedelic VR games to immersive, soul-soothing installations for major brands.

That, though, doesn’t fully encapsulate Fontaine and Lillemon’s mission, which can better be summed up as “trying to make the world more interesting."

While pushing what’s next in interactive media, the Department is also exploring new realities for the agency model—conceiving and building art-forward original IP for W+K that also drives an R&D feedback loop that informs client work.

Two of DPTNR’s latest ventures provide vivid demonstrations. “Paraíso Secreto,” an immersive experience for Corona, combined VR with live interactive elements to create a virtual paradise in the middle of one of the world’s most populous places, Mexico City. Senseless Fairytale, the group’s virtual reality reimagination of the classic children’s fairy tale was a self-driven entertainment project and appeared in the prestigious Cinekid film and digital media festival.

Here, DPTNR’s reality whisperers talk about the future of VR, an emerging agency model where art leads commerce, and how to do marketing when your goal is doing nothing less than altering human consciousness.

What drives a department of new realities—what’s your mission?

Geoffrey Lillemon: We’re trying to make artwork that appeals to people first and foremost, and then bring that into a commercial world. While we work in VR and AR, ultimately we’re trying to make new experiences that people haven’t seen before.

A lot of this stuff, it often feels like it’s being forced down people’s throats. It’s like, ‘oh, you don’t understand VR??’ It can be very off-putting and not very warm and inviting. So I think that’s also something we’re doing— trying to make these things that attract the right people to just want to hang out and have discussions. That’s the advantage of being able to make new realities—it opens the door.

New Realities seems like an apt name given your past work. Rather than a more prosaic or more technology-specific name, you seem to be taking on the bigger questions of digital reality vs physical reality...

GL: When we make these spaces that we’re inviting people into, it can sometimes be perceived as escapism because the world is a really scary place right now. That can be alluring, but the way we see it, we’re allowing people to think and feel deeper than they can in normal reality, so it’s not as much as much escapism as it is accessing a new way of looking at all reality.

AF: Right. Redefining what reality is. Because we want to feel like we have a say in what these landscapes of the future are going to be and we want to do that because if we don’t do it, someone else will! And potentially, our future could look more dystopian than it needs to be. So we’re trying to come at it from the standpoint of bringing positivity and light into some of these spaces and seeing it as an exciting possibility, as opposed to a vision of the future where everyone will be strapped into a headset and not moving while surrounded by environmental disaster. It can be a really great opportunity to remind people to be an activist or to remind people what’s happening in the world. It’s a way to give people empathy, and we’re really excited about that.

How are you bringing these ideas to marketers? Are you proactively pushing these ideas or are creative teams bringing you a campaign platform and looking to build it out in these different ways?

AF: It’s a hybrid department in that sense that we are building things in house but also coming up with concepts and working within W+K to bring some of their ideas to life. We’re executing stuff and making prototypes as much as we can. When you’re creating this original content, whether it be Bitmap Banshees or Senseless Fairytale, that kind of becomes a showcase for new business. It does spark the imagination of clients.

How did the Corona project come about?

AF: We were really proactive in how we put that idea forward. We had this idea of making this virtual paradise that could feel really real and it did answer part of Corona’s brief of trying to get people outdoors more, especially people in Mexico City who are stuck in this congested city. We built the prototype in the department and physically took the headsets to the team at Corona put them inside it and after that they were like, ‘wow this really does make sense.’ So I think a lot of the time we’re building these tests and prototypes and then putting people inside them as much as we can and showing people the possibilities, because it’s kind of hard to explain in words how these things feel.

What was the initial spark of that idea?

AF: It just came from the conversation we were having with our ECD Mark Bernath when we first started here, which was: what if we could make a believable virtual paradise—a destination? We were really interested in creating these VR worlds that feel like actual places and destinations for people to go to and are completely believable and we just got really obsessed with it, with trying to prove it was possible. And it took some time to show the client that it was possible, and it included us pitching the idea that included a physical haptic sensory element around the VR experience. So every time we went back and pitched the next layer on how to execute the idea, another layer was added. It started as a VR prototype and from there there it became an installation with sensory components and haptics and from that it turned into an event in Mexico City with actors and set design and a party, essentially, around it. A whole experience.

And Senseless Fairytale is a more purely self-driven project. Why did you want to do something for kids?

GL: The intention of Senseless Fairytale was, there’s an intuition that kids have with tech that is much more natural and needs less explaining. That was really inspiring so it was like, let’s see what appeals to people that understand technology from birth, as opposed to people that have been learning this stuff as adults. In some ways, all tech should have a focus on what appeals to children.

AF: We want to be making projects that alter the human consciousness. That may sound too spiritual but ultimately on a deeper level we want the stuff that we’re making to have meaning and have longevity in this world. So some of the realms we’re looking into - we have relationships with academics and people who are thinking about these technologies in terms of positive benefits on health. So, looking at the healthtech industry, for example, how can we create VR experiences that actually help you breathe better (see DPTNR’s Exhale 3000 app - link). There are all sorts of new companies emerging with this technology and we want to be a part of it.

How are you feeling about the state of VR now, and, if you’re trying to shape the future a bit, what are you seeing in the future? Do you see a future where the separation between digital and physical will be less and less defined?

GL: It’s a good question. When interfaces become more integrated, it all kind of is reality. Right now headsets are a bit clunky. And we’re already spending more of our time looking at the world through our phones. They are starting to meld into each other the more we stop making the distinction between digital and physical and just think about it all as reality, the more we can see it holistically.

AF: It’s funny, things that are inside screens are considered other worlds, but then when you think about it, in a few years all the content that’s inside screens will be outside screens and layered in our reality. And then what are we going to call it? We are trying to think ahead … to plan for building content that is fully integrated into our world.