July 4, 2016.
Fifteen thousand people attended the July Fourth fireworks at Butler County Fairgrounds. They were packed together and had to occupy themselves for hours as they waited for dusk. They talked to strangers, played euchre, and fiddled with their smartphones.
REI wanted to advertise or sell to these 15,000 attendees.
The company considered buying targeted ads on YouTube to interrupt a few poor guys trying to watch movie trailers on their phones. Then they weighed using MediaBrix’s engine to slip commercials into mobile games. In this case, REI would have paid for the opportunity to offer a mobile gamer an extra life after all of his ran out. To earn the bonus life, a gamer would only have to watch a 30-second commercial. It’s a smart advertising channel.
However, by targeting individual gamers with MediaBrix, REI would have ignored a conspicuous opportunity at the fairgrounds. REI had a captive audience there: 15,000 people sitting together in a shared physical space without a damn thing to do. So what was REI’s play?
Build a video game to engage the crowd.
REI wanted badly to get on casual cyclists’ radars and to link its brand to cycling culture in consumers’ minds. So a bicycle-racing game was perfect. Each player controlled a cycle with his or her iPhone. Not everyone in the crowd liked racing games– many had no interest in playing. But the race was eye-candy for sidelined spectators too, and the dazzling exhibition provoked both spectators and players to associate high-performance cycling with REI. That was a big win for REI.
Using GPS coordinates to anchor digital set pieces, developers had mapped REI’s virtual bicycle track onto the real physical space above the crowd. That meant that anyone with a mobile device could download an app to enjoy the show. iPhones were magic lenses that revealed a persistent digital layer over the real world. A dozen oddballs brought their Magic Leaps or Hololenses out to the fairgrounds to enjoy a highly immersive experience. Their friends lined up to glimpse REI’s spectacle in the sky through a Magic Leap.
What did this cost REI?
REI worked with a third-party developer to build one racing game. After testing, they deployed it across the country. The game entertained crowds at almost 1200 fairgrounds on July Fourth, and REI plans for its appearance at select baseball stadiums and other outdoor venues through the rest of the month.
Setting up virtual race tracks like the one at Butler Fairgrounds was as easy as inputting GPS coordinates into the game’s code. REI personnel and their game studio partners did this remotely. It’s unbelievable how little it cost to scale these games from one instance to 1200 instances. REI acknowledged that they could theoretically anchor a racing game in the sky over every parking lot in the country. Of course, doing so would turn these events into white noise, and everyone would tune them out.
The next puzzle was getting folks at Butler Fair to point their iPhones skyward and tune into REI’s frequency, so to speak.
REI’s racing game works with the free SHiFT app (which powers dozens of similar AR games fixed to their own GPS coordinates). Those with the app installed get notified within 500 feet of an AR event like this one. Also, unlike QR codes, this tech is cool and conversation-worthy, so modest social media buzz roused the first few bloggers and redditers. They were the first adopters on-site, and people sitting near them saw them pointing their phones at an invisible target in the sky. Kids sitting near them followed suit, and thus the crowd was soon peppered with people emulating their neighbors and pointing their iPhones skyward while tuning into REI’s racing game.
Meanwhile, Sony also was hosting a massive multiplayer tower defense game for the fairgoers, and indie developers had a few notable AR events to show the crowd. The SHiFT app carefully curates its library of AR events, with strict guidelines for high production-value and low vulgarity/indecency.
REI’s racing game was a success, and it pulled positive reviews across Twitter and Facebook. Yet, the company fears that another AR engine, a competitor to the well-curated SHiFT app, will hit the app store and will litter the skies with garbage AR events. An overzealous indie developer might actually plant instances of their game in the sky above every parking lot in the U.S. That’s why curating, ranking, or featuring quality content matters to SHiFT’s team.
Brands don’t seem concerned. There’s a lot of garbage to sift through on Pinterest and YouTube too, but cream rises. Brands with the resources to hire the right artists can really create head-turning games or events that scale. That’s good news for fairgoers passing the time while waiting for the fireworks to get started.
This futuristic experience is currently possible on iPhone 4 and later. Only, the software hasn’t yet been created. Expect a hardware-agnostic engine like SHiFT to reach the app store in the next two years, especially if Magic Leap and Hololens find widespread adoption.