You feel the temperature around you getting hotter. A warm breeze blows against your face, followed by mist. You hear what sounds like the ocean. When you open your eyes, you find yourself on a secluded beach, with the bright sunshine and colorful scenery all around you. What you see and feel is an actual location in Hawaii, but in reality, you’re inside a makeshift telephone-like booth at the Marriott Marquis hotel in New York City.
What we just described is Marriott’s concept for virtual-reality (VR) travel, a 4D “sensory experience” that uses the Oculus Rift VR headset to transport someone to a destination, but without actually going there. Just launched at the Marquis, the Transporter will tour six other cities across the U.S. — with one stationed inside a Marriott property and another as a pop-up somewhere in the city — for both hotel guests and the general public.
For a brand that’s synonymous with lodging, you may be asking: What business does Marriott have playing with a nascent technology that most people associate with science fiction? For Marriott, it sees virtual reality playing a big role in how people travel in the future, and how it can be at that forefront – not just as a company that manages hotels, but also as a groundbreaker in the world of travel.
Future of travel
As one of the world’s largest hotel operators, Marriott has been testing new concepts in order to keep up with the modern travelers’ needs – from shifting furniture in and out of rooms, to placing charging stations around the hotel and mobile check-in.
“We’ve been leading the industry, looking for ways to innovate,” says Michael Dail, VP of brand marketing for Marriott. “One of the things that we’ve been doing as a brand is renovating the hotel experience.”
It’s creating interesting applications for our business, but it’s also exciting to be at the forefront with the content.
One of those ideas is virtual reality. The company knew about the Oculus Rift, and how it could be used for a travel-related VR experience.
“We talked about the idea of virtual reality being another metaphor for the ‘future of travel,’” Dail says. “How can we take what was existing and use content to start the conversation, and really engage people with the brand on a whole new level, because you don’t think of hotels as being part of VR.
“When you take it out of the gaming and entertainment application, you look at (VR) in a travel scenario, then you start to think, ‘I could really sample a destination … this gives you a much better way of experiencing it [than looking at static images on a hotel booking site],” Dail adds.
But because consumer VR has primarily been used for gaming and movies, the challenge was finding suitable content for hotel travel. If it truly wanted to create a VR experience, Marriott knew it would have to build something from the ground up.
So Marriott tapped Relevent for development help. Relevent, a marketing agency with experience creating special projects, worked with Marriott on how to create a unique VR travel experience using Oculus that explores what the future of travel could be, and, importantly, it needed to feel realistic. What came out of their brainstorms was the Teleporter, the aforementioned phone booth. The Teleporter, however, would go beyond virtual reality. It would combine 3D visual and audio elements with a physical experience – something referred to as 4D. It would require the construction of the booth and associating hardware, as well as creating custom accessories for filming the visuals.
The booth would have a user step into the booth (after signing a waiver, naturally), put on the headset and headphones, and “transported” into a virtual hotel lobby; within that lobby, the user is transported again – sci-fi style – to two locations, Hawaii and London, where they can experience what it’s like to be in those two different environments.
Before starting the project this past January, Relevent already had some insight: It worked with HBO to create a similar project for the show Game of Thrones, called “Ascent of Wall,” which generated much buzz at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this year. In conceptualizing Marriott’s Transporter, Ian Cleary, Relevent’s VP of Ideation and Innovation, says that even though the VR visuals are CGI, “throughout this whole project we want to make it feel as real as it can possibly be…to make the virtual travel experience feel like being there.”
Putting an amusement ride inside a closet
Just what is 4D? If you’ve been to an amusement park, you may have already experienced it. It’s a type of ride that combines a 3D film with physical experience, whether it’s the vibrations from a seat, air from a blower, or water being spritzed on you – all happening in-sync with the film.
Marriott’s VR experience (also referred to as #GetTeleported) is a similar idea, but more intimate and less rowdy than rides like Captain EO at Disneyland, or Spongebob Squarepants at Six Flags, yet far more complex to achieve.
“We’re taking an amusement park ride and cramming it into a closet – it’s an engineering challenge.”
Generally, “if you’re going to build out an experience that makes you feel like you’ve been to Hawaii or London, you would probably need a warehouse…you’d need to recreate a beach with sand, create a whole set with the skyline of London and the scale would take months and be something that’s in one place,” Cleary adds.
To record the visual elements for the Oculus, Relevent partnered with Framestore, a creative agency specializing in virtual reality that also worked on the Game of Thrones project. Framestore used several RED Dragon cameras (Framestore says they’re the best cameras you can buy for stereoscopic 3D) and special lenses on a customized ball-head rig to shoot the live video; the scenes are also scanned (using Lidar technology, to help measure depth and proximity of contents to one another), and then combined with photos to map the detailed CGI environment that the viewer sees.
But filming the scenes was incredibly difficult for several reasons. To achieve the 4D experience, the visuals had to be in sync with the other elements. The right audio had to come on at the right time, along with the industrial misters; the heating elements; the carpet fans that blow air up; a scent-making machine that pumps out smells; and the speaker that vibrates the “rumble deck” a user stands on, which also tilts forward during the London experience. As Cleary puts it, they were trying to MacGyver something into a Wonka Vision.
As the film crew went about its work, “we were having somebody stand right next to them and do what we call a sensory survey,” Cleary says. “Several people essentially recording everything that [the user would later feel], from slight vibrations under their feet, the wind in their hair, how warm the air is, the sun in their face, what angle the sun is at.
“We aggregate the inventory of sensations into the sensory survey of what the [Teleporter’s] feeling should be, and essentially designed and built the Teleporter and then all these mechanisms that deliver those sensations,” Cleary adds.
But the biggest task was capturing those visuals for the Oculus, and in a way, Marriott, Relevent, and Framestore are pioneers. The key was, it had to be realistic.
“It’s very difficult, because it’s not just the fact that there are very few precedence of it being done before, but also the fact that trying to simulate how your eyes and brain works, is far harder than we originally thought,” says Mike Woods, the head of Framestore’s digital practice. “There are so many things that we had to work out, to feel realistic, and not a lot of those things were technical; they were understanding how your head pivots on your shoulders, and how your eyes focus in, and how that changes as you move your head left and right – incredibly, technically difficult to pull off.”
Another issue is making sure the video doesn’t make people feel sick, Woods tells us. In our previous experience with the Oculus Rift, the major problem was the nausea that we developed from the experience. Woods agrees, and says that happens because of poor-quality video.
“It’s no different to 3D films in the cinema,” Woods says. “If you feel sick it’s because they’ve been made cheaply. This is the same. Cheap VR experiences will make you nauseous, it needs to be crafted to suit your eyes perfectly.
“We can’t have people walking with the feeling of sickness – that’s disastrous – so we have to make sure that it’s perfectly done,” Woods adds.
So, if it’s this difficult to put together, why not just focus on the VR aspect and forego the other 4D elements?
“Traveling is about sensation, it’s getting you out of your comfort zone and making you feel things you haven’t felt before,” Cleary says. “We went through elaborate lengths [because] when you travel, it not just the eyes or ears.”
If the whole setup sounds like a page out of a science-fiction movie, it’s because that’s where the Relevent team drew the Teleporter’s inspiration.
“We looked at literally every permutation of science-fiction – books, TV, movies, talking about any sort of travel over distance in sort of unnatural ways,” Cleary says. “In a way, what we’re doing here is trying to pioneer the future and that does sometimes looks a bit like science fiction.”
Contributing to the VR conversation
Nine months after the project began, all parties involved faced challenges, but also learned a lot from what we assume was an expensive project (all interview subjects declined to address cost).
“There isn’t a one-step solution for this,” Woods says. “Every environment you want to capture, to put someone in, you take it on a case-by-case basis and you work the best way to shooting that. Understanding what makes people feel nauseous and what doesn’t is another massive learning curve as well.”
Cheap VR experiences will make you nauseous, it needs to be crafted to suit your eyes perfectly.”
Cleary also points out that the beauty of the project is that it’s scalable for the future.
“This is something that we have the content for now, and we can fabricate as many of those things as we want,” Cleary says. “We can work with Framestore to shoot 100 more destinations. The ability to scale this is pretty spectacular, so then all of a sudden what we talk about is depth at scale, which in many ways is kind of the marketing dream.
For Marriott, it is the most complex experimental project it has embarked on, Dail says. “You have technology that exists, but hasn’t been brought together yet, so a lot of the applications are very custom.”But because the company is one of the first to try Oculus in a non-gaming application, it hopes it can add to the conversation surrounding the virtual reality community, as the technology grows and becomes mainstream. In fact, Marriott could be one of the first to demonstrate the Oculus Rift headset to the public.
“For us, it’s really about creating interesting applications for our business, but it’s also exciting to be at the forefront with the content,” Dail says. “Because we’re having this conversation publicly – we’re engaging social media, we’ll be on a lot of blogs and sites – we definitely want to stay engaged with the community. We’re kind of this big entry into the community, so [our experience] would be definitely something we want to continue to share and refine.
“It’s going to be exciting to see, as you have the technology advance, as it becomes more mainstream, as the cost comes down … it becomes more accessible, how it can be scaled, will be real exciting to look at,” Dail adds.
Is there a real future for virtual travel?
As you watch participants try out the experience, you might think it looks a bit comical – that’s understandable and forgivable, as the Oculus and VR headsets in general are still a foreign idea for the masses. But it’s when you put it on, you experience what the Oculus can do outside of the gaming and entertainment world. As you physically turn your head, you can see an ultra-realistic 360-degree environment around you, moving fluidly as you pan with your eyes. You know it’s all CGI, so it does have a video game-like quality in some aspect. The vibrating deck you’re standing on simulates movement around the virtual hotel room, transporting you to the two destinations – the Hawaiian beach and at the top of a high-rise in central London. In the London scene, the deck actually tilts you forward to simulate looking from a balcony, and you can feel the wind and hear the city noise. (You’ll get a better sense of what we experienced when you watch the videos.)
(Above, this writer experiencing the Teleporter at the launch event in New York City.)
As Relevent’s Cleary describes it, it very much feels like a theme park ride. But Marriott’s Dail stresses that this is only the beginning, and it’s committed to virtual reality, whether it’s the Oculus or some other hardware.
“Over the next few weeks we’ll get a sense of what does the public think, is the public embracing the technology?” Dail says. “We’ll wrap up in November or December, so that’s a great time to regroup and think about taking it to other cities, or we can look at other destinations – maybe to a little more adventuresome than Hawaii and London.
What we’re doing here is trying to pioneer the future and that does sometimes looks a bit like science fiction.
For Marriott, travel is its business, and that doesn’t mean just offering a place to sleep. It sees virtual reality, on its own, contributing to other parts of its business, whether that’s event planning like a conference or wedding, or aspirational travel, even if there aren’t any 4D elements.
“Say you’re planning a wedding, or you’re having a big conference at a Marriott hotel, virtual reality can help you as a planner look at that and decide – try it out before you actually commit,” Dail says. “It’s designed to [make travel] attainable. Imagine the places you couldn’t go without a million dollars, a trip of a lifetime experience … to us that’s pretty exciting, taking it out of the realms of what is a hotel, and to us that’s pretty exciting.”
Of course, no matter how real the virtual reality looks now, it will never replace the real thing.
“People watch hundreds of hours of TV at home, but they still love to go to the movies,” Cleary says. “You still want to go to the movies, you still want to go to the amusement park because they give you that deeper thing. It’s not an everyday thing, but it’s something really special.”