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Photorealistic CGI product placement ads could soon invade your favorite movies

We’re all used to personalized advertising in the age of the internet. Known as “identity marketing,” this brave new world of selling means we are shown only advertisements considered likely to appeal to us. Whether it’s Amazon recommending a new book, Netflix suggesting a particular movie, or Google selling us on a certain holiday after something we mentioned in an email, advertisers draw on information about individuals and use this to decide whether to bother targeting us with a particular ad.

You know the one place this doesn’t apply? Movies and TV. No, I’m not referring to the ads that play during commercial breaks; I’m talking about the ads that appear inside the content itself. Called variously “product placement” or “brand integration,” these are the ads that don’t seem like ads because they exist within the entertainment that you’re watching. Remember that brand of tablet your favorite action star used to save the world in that blockbuster you watched last weekend? How about that scene in Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond, Casino Royale, when Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd derisively asks if he’s wearing a Rolex? “Omega,” Bond corrects her. “Beautiful,” Lynd responds. Who wouldn’t want to own the same watch as James Bond?

“[This is] a $15 billion industry that’s growing at 14% per year,” Roy Taylor, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Ryff Inc., told Digital Trends. “That’s completely different to traditional advertising, which is in freefall except for major events like the Super Bowl.”

The problem with this kind of advertising, at least compared to other forms of modern selling, is that it doesn’t allow for the same level of personalization. Sure, an element of self-selection takes place when a certain type of person chooses to watch a certain type of movie or TV show. But once they’re in the theater or crashed on their couch watching the content in question, it’s the same for everyone. Vesper Lynd will still drool over James Bond’s Omega watch, even if you’re more of a Tag Heuer person yourself. Or you don’t wear a watch at all.

This is where Ryff Inc. enters the picture. Roy Taylor has a concept that could forever change the way that we watch TV shows and movies by bringing it into line with the kind of personalized advertising we see online. “What we can enable is identity marketing for brand integration in film and TV,” he said.

Translated from marketing speak, that means that one day (and probably sooner than you think) that video game being played by the cool character on your favorite sitcom, or the giant billboard leaped by a motorbike-driving Tom Cruise in his latest action spy thriller, won’t be the same one seen by everyone else who watches it. These objects will be carefully chosen to fit you, the viewer, and then digitally inserted into the scene with no sign of a dodgy join. Welcome to the future of advertising.

The inspiration of gaming

Since 2010, British-born Taylor has worked in Hollywood on movie production. But before this, he worked in computer games. In 1998, he was one of the first senior executives at Nvidia outside the United States. “I was working out of my bedroom,” he said. This knowledge of gaming, and specifically the graphics technology involved, informs the work currently being carried out at Ryff.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“When you play a video game, even if you’re playing online at the same time as millions and millions of other people, every single person playing in that same sandbox has an utterly unique view,” he explained. “No one player sees exactly what another player does, even though they’re playing the same game. It seemed to us that if you could deliver a video game infrastructure, where quite literally hundreds of millions of people all had a completely unique viewing experience, that could also be used to create unique brand integrations.”

In some ways, Taylor said that it’s actually less challenging to edit things into video content. In a game that’s playable online, the graphics engine must be able to deliver a real-time experience with absolutely no idea of what a player is going to do at any given time. Things are a bit more fixed in a TV show. You can watch Breaking Bad as many times as you like, and the various twists and turns aren’t likely to change on each subsequent viewing.

“Since all we have to do is hold 3D objects in the cloud, the number of options is almost infinite.”

So just how many versions of a movie or TV show will studios have to render in advance; allowing for the substitution of different items into scenes? When I suggested to Taylor that it would be possible to make, say, 100 different cuts of a movie to incorporate every different soft drink brand, he smiled at the limitations of my vision. “Why not a hundred thousand, or a million different versions?” he asked. “Since all we have to do is hold 3D objects in the cloud, the number of options is almost infinite.”

Conceivably every object in, for instance, a living room scene could be manipulated to present something statistically predicted to appeal to you. (For a limited demo of this, check out Ryff’s proof-of-concept here.)

Lawrence of Arabia with Nike boots?

This is the really computationally impressive bit of what Ryff is promising. Anyone who has been to the movies in the past quarter century knows that it’s now possible to digitally insert objects (be they Coke bottles or a Tyrannosaurus Rex) alongside real, flesh-and-blood actors. But what Ryff is able to do is to insert digital facsimiles of real objects within scenes, in something approaching real-time. That includes getting the lighting of each object right, using a technique called ray tracing, which uses the light and shadows in each scene to conjure up the necessary math wizardry. Increasingly, it will also be possible to do this with more dynamic interactions, where the objects are tracked to characters, rather than just appearing on shelves in the background or tables in the foreground.


Of course, while brand marketing experts may lick their lips at the prospect of doing all of this, cinephiles may recoil at the notion. Like the Star Wars “Special Editions” on hyper-capitalist overdrive, does this mean that we can expect all the classic movies we grew up on to suddenly find themselves filled with product placement? Are we in for a future in which Lawrence of Arabia tramps through the desert in the latest Nike Boots, and Taxi Driver’s alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle drives an Uber? Taylor emphatically says not.

“There are some iconic pieces of film and TV which, in our opinion, should never be touched,” Taylor said. “The directors and producers meant for them to be told in a certain way, and to have certain brands — or not — that were correct for the story they were telling. We’re very respectful of that.”

Have they ever toyed around and put, say, a bottle of Old Spice into Citizen Kane? “For fun, internally, we put a MacBook Pro into Casablanca,” he said. “But that was purely for us, playing around. The outcome of that was, firstly, that it looked really good. Secondly, that it should never be done.”

Of course, future movies and TV shows are all presumably fair game.

Google Ads for the moving image

Introduced as “AdWords” in late 2000, back when Google was in its infancy, the company’s approach to advertising transformed the way online ads worked. Now called Google Ads, the enormously lucrative system lets advertisers bid on certain keywords in order for their clickable ads to appear in Google’s search results. In theory, it’s the democratization of advertising. Everyone has the opportunity to get the word out about his or her product on the world’s biggest information platform. And, of course, Google rakes in a pretty penny (or $95.4 billion in 2017) from it.

“Our vision is to build the Google AdWords of the moving image,” Taylor said. “There are 28 million small businesses in America and 23 million small businesses in Europe. In a recent U.S. government survey, 66% of small businesses said their biggest challenge was brand awareness. We would like to build a platform that makes it possible for small brands to make it onto TV and film.”

If all goes according to plan, Ryff could disrupt an advertising industry worth billions.

That means that, rather than seeing the same brands pop up over and over in movies, it could be possible to insert your (yes, your!) brand into a hit Hollywood movie without having to have the Sony movie budgeting department on speed dial. As unfair as it might sound, a banner for Joe’s Pizza Shop, Arkansas is probably never going to make it onto the side of the truck that a big budget movie’s climactic fight scene takes place on. But what if you could bid to make sure that this banner only appeared for viewers in Arkansas, who had previously ordered pizza, who were watching this particular movie at home on a Saturday night, right around the time they were thinking about what takeout to order in? That seems a little more realistic. And probably a whole lot more affordable, too.

“Right now, we’re just starting to implement [all of] this,” Taylor said. “The company is a year old. We’re still doing proof-of-concept work and early stage engagements.” At present, the plan is for Ryff’s technology to be up and running “in the very near future.” Initially, this will be limited to the digital placement of product placement objects in scenes, customized to the viewer’s preferences. Should all go well, expect the bidding-based platform to follow.

If all goes according to plan, Ryff could disrupt an advertising industry worth billions. Movies and TV will never look the same again, literally.

And the powers-that-be will have achieved the Shangri-La of selling things: the totally unskippable ad.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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