The surprise success of Sony’s PlayStation VR in recent days shows we may be nearing a tipping point in terms of mainstream acceptance of virtual reality. But Ben Smith, CEO of virtual-reality company Laduma and a speaker at this month’s PromaxBDA Europe Conference, got a taste of our latent collective interest in the technology back in October.
It was the weekend of the NFL International Series kickoff in London, an annual event that shuts down Regent Street with a pre-game block party. One of Laduma’s clients, the forward-thinking Jacksonville Jaguars, was playing in the game versus the Indianapolis Colts, so Laduma joined the festivities, constructing an area out of the rain where fans could put on headsets and try out some of the new VR content they had been creating for the team. Their station hardly stood out amidst all the hullabaloo of Jags cheerleaders, football-throwing contests and other activities, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“The weather wasn’t great,” Smith said, and there wasn’t even “a sign there that said, ‘come and watch NFL VR.’” And yet, “before we knew it,” he continued, “there were hundreds and hundreds of people lined up to see what was going on with these headsets.”
Over the next four hours, almost 4,000 people cycled through Laduma’s station to experience the Jaguars in VR, enjoying a 360-degree tour that took them around the team’s Florida home at EverBank Field, into the locker room, and even into the arena’s famous outdoor pools where swimsuit-clad fans can lounge over the north end zone. The enthusiastic participants ranged from “little kids right up to grandmas and granddads,” Smith said.
Eventually, Laduma had to stop people from lining up because the batteries in the phones were running dead, but the event “was a real marker for us in terms of, ‘yeah, there’s real interest in this,’” Smith said, “and from the Jags’ and the NFL’s point of view, it was great for them because it marked them out as being very cutting edge in the way they reach out to their fans.”
Before starting Laduma with cofounders Wayne Scholes and Alex Kunawicz, Smith served stints as a BBC correspondent and a sportswriter for the Times of London, and before that worked in film.
“To go from the movie business to the media and journalism and then across to VR seems like quite an unusual path, but to me it was always about telling great stories,” he said. “VR is just another platform, maybe the most exciting platform yet, for telling fantastic stories.”
Smith freely admitted that “VR wasn’t something I had experience with or felt that I was a pioneer of in any way really.”
But he knew how to entertain people, and had the good sense, along with his partners, to “bring people in who did have that experience.” Today, Laduma, whose name derives from a Zulu word meaning “the thunder is coming,” employs both VR content creators and topnotch VR engineers, the kind of people “who built the first VR rigs, people who were steeped in the geekery of VR,” Smith said. “We felt that by combining that kind of knowledge with the storytelling and understanding of narrative, we gave ourselves an incredible chance to build something sustainable in a marketplace that is still developing.”
So far, it’s working. In addition to working with the Jaguars, Laduma, in less than two years since its founding, has partnered with organizations such as the L.A. Galaxy, Wimbledon and, most recently, the Denver Broncos. And those are just clients on the sports side. These days, brands in almost every industry are looking toward virtual reality to create new experiences for consumers, and Laduma also has collaborated with clients ranging from luxury hotels to a safari park in Africa.
But VR projects in the sports world are what tend to grab the headlines, and what’s more, “with sports you have that ready-made audience who are desperate to feel closer to their heroes,” Smith said.
It’s a given that live sports are among the last televised events that viewers care to consume in real time, which makes it ever-more important to give them a reason for doing so. But while there have been great disruptions in how television content gets delivered, the actual act of sitting down and watching TV, he continued, has not changed “for going on 70 years now and I don’t see that changing in the near future. I think it will come in time but the key for us right now is to add value to that main product.”
For now, that value is added largely through apps such as Jags Gameday and LA Galaxy VR, with “the idea being that we create a game-day experience that isn’t about the match itself but is about something that tempts you, the fan, from the sofa,” Smith said, “and gives you a sense of everything that’s going on underneath that stadium while you’re listening to your analyst talk about the game itself.”
When Daily Brief spoke to him, Smith estimated that “there are about 5-6 million VR headsets in the world right now.” That number has surely gone up some since the debut of Sony’s PlayStation VR offering, but the total number of people experiencing this technology through anything but their mobile devices or computers remains relatively low. It’s only a matter of time, though, before the immersive element of VR becomes the norm and not the novelty, and when it does, Laduma will be ready.
“We’re still in the very early stages of where VR is,” Smith said. “The best comparison is to draw parallels with [early French filmmakers] the Lumiere Brothers. In the 1890s they created the first publicly available piece of cinema, a train pulling into a station. It was shown in cinemas and it was the first film anyone had ever seen and people reacted in an incredible way—they all panicked and ran for the doors because they thought this train was going to come through the screen. In a funny way, VR is in a similar place right now. We’re at the point where we’re shocking people with this incredible new technology, but we still have a very long way to go if we’re going to sustain what comes next—because what cinema had to do was realize it wasn’t going to fool people for long by everyone thinking that what was happening on the screen was real.”
The kind of VR that happens in the headsets “will continue to wow people for a little bit longer because it’s still new,” Smith continued, “but if it’s going to succeed, it’s got to be the content and the storytelling that ensures that it will, just as it was for cinema and television. Coming from the movie business, it’s key to me that we don’t get too wrapped up in the early momentum of VR. Laduma aims for every piece of content that we create to be something that affects people in one way or another and leaves them connected to what they saw in a profound way. If we can achieve that we are on the right track.”