A New VR Experience Puts You in Bryce Harper’s Mind and Cleats
In these early days of virtual reality, the content is rather unorthodox. The medium is still new and fresh and experimental, and most of the compelling videos are essentially ads. The short-form format is perfect for bite-size immersive movies created by a new wave of VR studios and creative agencies for big brands, and those big brands have a lot of marketing money to fund those projects.
Now, Gatorade is getting into the VR act in honor of its 50th anniversary. A new short live-action-and-CGI piece, which was developed in collaboration with communications company OMD and production company The Mill, puts you in the batter’s box at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. In the three-and-a-half-minute experience, which is available now on YouTube 360 and viewable via Google Cardboard, you start out a few feet away from Nationals slugger Bryce Harper warming up in the on-deck circle.
Then you become Bryce Harper. (Insert joke about the real “Bryce Harper experience” being a VR fishing simulation while the Mets play in the postseason.) Harper walks toward you, you morph into him, and then you find yourself facing a big-league pitcher in a real MLB stadium with the game on the line.
Dario Raciti, U.S. Director of the Zero Code gaming wing of OMD, says his team and The Mill’s team worked with Gatorade’s concept to blend surround-view video, CGI, and cleverly built hardware.
“We worked with (The Mill) to build the appropriate rig,” says Raciti. “It was designed to match the height of Bryce Harper so it would give you exactly the same point of view. The rig was 14 GoPros, and we shot it over two days at Nats Park. The post production, we created the virtual part of Bryce Harper, the CGI. We analyzed how he moves on the field, using physics that replicate how he bats. That part took a long time. And we recorded binaural audio, so we put little microphones around his head so when you hear his voice, it sounds like it’s coming from within your head.”
Incidentally, it’s also the only non-positional-tracking VR experience I’ve done so far that is designed to be viewed while standing up. Usually, you’re instructed to sit down to avoid getting lost in the VR moment and banging into stuff. Not this time: I was standing in the batter’s box, working the count, and I could look up at my bat, down at my torso, and back at the catcher and ump while hearing Harper’s “thoughts” as each pitch is delivered. It’s a bit dizzying at first, but my brain adjusted after a few seconds. Once your mind cooperates, it feels incredibly real.
In fact, it feels so real that it’s a bit jarring for right-handed hitters. Harper is a lefty, so standing in the batter’s box while virtual pitches whizz past you feels a little weird unless you’re a left-handed or switch hitter.
“We’ve had people use it, and they raise their hands and mimic holding a bat as if they’re playing,” says Gatorade senior director of user engagement Kenny Mitchell. “That tells me we’ve done a good job actually making someone feel like they’re in the experience, when they’re trying to replicate what Bryce would go through.”
Along with Harper’s in-your-head voices, the experience uses real crowd noises from Nationals games—and real sounds from the umpire and catcher—that are mapped to your head location. As you look around, the sounds change depending on where you’re looking.
While the experience is immersive right now, it’s not interactive. That may change soon. Things like positional tracking and handheld controls in the next generation of VR experiences should make future VR experiences like this even more mind-boggling.
“There’s no language for VR right now,” Zero Code’s Raciti says. “Everybody’s learning. So this was our step one. We want to learn how to do this, and now people are already asking when they can actually play as him. These are all things we’re exploring together with Gatorade. Who knows, maybe next year it will be playable.”
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