Here at The Program, we hold VR, filmmaking, and cycling sacred, which is why we were especially stoked to create Night Sessions - a 360-video/VR mountain biking experience - for our brand partner, Ledlenser. The project united three of our four favorite things (sorry pizza, maybe next time) and provided an opportunity to bring the first low-light high-impact 360 video to market.
The biggest challenge in creating compelling experiences in VR is dealing with an entirely new design/best-practice paradigm that’s markedly different from 2D or even typical 3D work. In VR, audio cues and hints that direct the viewer’s gaze become much more important - especially for fast and dynamic experiences. When you’re capturing 360 footage for an experience, use camera orientation, subject blocking, timing and spacing to guide the user. If done correctly, the experience will be seamless - the viewer will be immersed in the action but still feel free to explore the environment as they please.
We began by testing different 360 rigs in low light. Not just any setup will shoot high-res footage in darkness. We chose a custom rig equipped with Sony A7s’ - aptly named the Dark Corner. But even with a low-light rig, we anticipated lighting and stitching limitations, so to ensure the highest quality resolution, we opted to shoot with stationary camera positioning.
Next came scouting. To maximize the 360-degree nature of the experience, we sought a location packed with obstacles and criss-crossing tracks so that riders’ paths would overlap and wrap around the viewer. The tracks also needed to be densely packed within a small area so that we could hit lots of spots in two days of filming. We settled on a location outside of Hood River, Oregon packed with jumps, drops and berms. Then, we plotted camera positions, selected talent and scheduled the shoot.
The shoot lasted two days. Time was tight. Ledlenser products must be shot in transitional light, so we had 3 hours of shoot-time per day. Shooting in 360 added to the time pressure. Everything is visible in 360 - you’re never out of view. Which means, at each new location, you must hide crew, camera cases, lights and mics before cameras roll.
The remoteness of our location also posed a challenge. We were deep in the woods. We drove on rutted-out logging roads and lugged heavy gear up steep inclines and across hard-as-concrete trails with pebbles that could double as ball bearings. We had to be quick, sure-footed and mindful of poison oak and bears.
After the shoot, we stitched together the footage from the cameras in our rig (four cameras, each with a 90-degree field of view) into one full 360-degree experience. Then we edited.
When you’re stitching, it’s common to run into problems with footage warping. To avoid warp, opt for a rig with more cameras. The more cameras, the narrower the field of view in each camera and the less warping in the final stitched image.
To pull the experience together we produced an Android GearVR app using Unity3d. Drawing inspiration from common VR gameplay mechanics, we implemented gaze-enabled interactive sliders and gaze suggestion arrows to direct and inform users through a simple and intuitive UI. This allows users to start and exit video playing based on VR visual cues and GearVR controls, elevating the experience beyond a looping 360 video.
Night Sessions was deployed at the Outdoor Retailers Conference and has since been used by Ledlenser’s sales team to show buyers how powerful Ledlenser headlamps really are.
Content creation and distribution is an area of focus we’ve been exposed to for a number of years. Building complex technical and creative experiences, we often used contracted or client provided content. In order to truly impact end-to-end consumer experiences and strengthen our agency offering, the natural evolution was to bring content creation resources in-house.
After working with Portland-based content production studio, IODA Media, we were thrilled they were interested in discussing an acquisition. IODA’s unique aesthetic, attention to detail and passion for their craft proved to be a perfect addition to The Program and our brand partners.
With the acquisition final, The Program’s new team has already produced a variety of content for Nike, Led Lenser, and Dr. Martens. This discipline bolsters our digital capabilities and is a natural extension to our strategy, creative and engineering teams. We are excited to watch this team take on new challenges, continue pushing boundaries and help lead The Program in a new and exciting direction.