The 7 essential branded VR experiences (so far)

Advertisers were among the first to experiment with virtual reality. Here are 7 brand experiences that define the state of the art.

At the Tribeca Film Festival this week, audiences can visit the Virtual Arcade and marvel at the best of what filmmakers have done with virtual reality so far. But VR buffs know that Hollywood isn’t far ahead of Madison Avenue in pushing this technology forward. Brands from Mountain Dew to Lowes to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, have been leaping into the VR space from its earliest days, and their work continues to help define the state of the art.

At this stage, new branded executions are emerging almost daily. But here are our picks for the seven essential branded VR experiences so far.

1. Lowe's Holoroom
Launch: 2014

Introduced in the VR Dark Ages of 2014, Lowe’s Holoroom remains one of the best examples of how the technology could shape the future of shopping. The Holoroom allows customers to construct their dream bathroom or kitchen in a virtual room that exactly matches the one in their home. Customers simply select their desired pieces and organize their imaginary room to their liking, then the sci-fi Holoroom transforms their design into a 360-degree video available for viewing through an Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.

Those who have struggled to articulate their remodeling aspirations to family, or their contractor, now have the ability to share their vision in a very literal sense. The guesswork is gone. The idea is tangible. The Holoroom, developed in conjunction with SciFutures, a foresight and innovation consultancy, is now available at 19 locations, up from just two when it debuted.

2. Merrell’s TrailScape
Launch: Sundance Film Festival, January 22 to February 1, 2015

Outdoorsy retailers like REI and Orvis can make their stores as rustic as they want. The truth is that the experience of buying outdoor gear is remarkably divorced from the experience of using it; what could be farther from climbing a mountain than driving to a store and whipping out your Mastercard? With TrailScape, footwear company Merrell and virtual reality studio Framestore teamed up to provide a thrilling alternative.

Launched at Sundance 2015, TrailScape transports users to the Dolomites, a mountain range located in Northern Italy, where they must traverse a creaky rope bridge, avoid hazardous rockslides and tiptoe along a narrow ledge without the deep drop below rousing too much dread. Oh, and the view’s beautiful; you can see for miles. While Oculus Rift and motion-capture technology deliver the digital illusion, physical ropes, a rock wall and fans that simulate wind help make the walk-around environment a true innovation that pushes what’s possible for retail. Suddenly, a trip to the mall might not feel so mundane.

3. Dew VR Snow
Launch: March 4, 2015

Sometimes the simplest approach is the best. Fancy features and flashy add-ons can dilute and distract. A great example of uncomplicated goodness: Mountain Dew's Dew VR Snow. The user rides along as three elite snowboarders — Danny Davis, Scotty Lago, and Jack Mitrani — descend a mountain in Utah’s untouched backcountry. That’s it, really. But the results are majestic. You see them jump. You hear them yell. It’s all very cool.

The footage, which was produced in conjunction with digital agency Firstborn and production company Brain Farm, does, however, contain one fancy feature. It’s called Time Warp, and it lets viewers rewind what they just saw. In sum, this is what virtual reality can and should do: Allow people to experience something otherwise impossible.

4. Dreams of Dalí
Launch: "Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination" exhibit at the Dalí Museum, January 23 to June 12, 2016

It doesn’t get much more creative than the mind of Salvador Dalí, the surrealist painter who introduced the world to melting watches and lobster telephones. That’s why the Dreams of Dali virtual reality experience, which takes viewers on an immersive trip inside his 1935 painting Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's "Angelus," makes so much sense: no leap of the imagination is required to see why the pairing works. A part of the "Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination" exhibit now on display at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, Dreams of Dalí is both mesmerizing and unsettling.

Viewers are free to look up or down, left or right, as they float throughout the ominous terrain encountering familiar Dalí characters, such as giant elephants with long, spider-like legs and a lone girl skipping rope on the barren landscape. Haunting sounds occur throughout. The project, created by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, is a perfect example of how new mediums can reinterpret the way we view old ones.

5. The Art of Patrón Virtual Reality Experience
Launch: May 1, 2015

Patrón is a mass brand, but its claim to distinction is its painstaking distilling process, which takes place at the remote Hacienda Patrón distillery in Jalisco, Mexico. To bring bartenders, distributors and other stakeholders into the fold, the company in 2015 produced "Art of Patrón Virtual Reality Experience," a two-minute behind-the-scenes film in which agave is harvested, tequila crafted and the bottles packaged. The entire trip occurs through the eyes of Patrón’s signature bee, giving the seamless journey an extra special something. (People can’t fly through key holes, for example.)

Created in partnership with Firstborn, the video employed custom-built drones outfitted with GoPro cameras and a fusion of live action footage and CGI animation. Not all projects that expose a brand’s process are entertaining, but, when done with care and purpose, they leave the viewer feeling a bit more like family. That’s what’s happened here.

6. Happy Goggles
Launch: In Sweden, February 29, 2016

Crayons, mazes, plastic figurines — these are the Happy Meal amusements of yesteryear. Today, kids require more stimulation while munching on Chicken McNuggets. That, presumably, is the thinking behind Happy Goggles, a Happy Meal box designed to transform into a virtual reality viewer. While you still have to provide your own smartphone, McDonald's in Sweden will provide a 360-degree downhill skiing game called Slope Stars that involves collecting, well, stars while avoiding obstacles and other skiers. Experience design company North Kingdom in Stockholm created the game, and DDB Stockholm developed the strategy, design and packaging.

The bigger idea at play here? Virtual reality as mass entertainment. Much like when the New York Times shipped Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers to its print subscribers to promote its new virtual reality application, McDonald's is showing that, with a little ingenuity, virtual reality can ease into our routine as easily as French fries. (At present, Happy Goggles are available only in Sweden, and only for a limited time. If things go well, expect to see them everywhere.)

7. The New Revolution: Virtual Reality Coaster
Launch: Various locations. March 10, 2016, and onward

In the coming months, Six Flags plans to turn nine of its plain old roller coasters located across North America into exciting new virtual reality roller coasters. How? By strapping Samsung Gear VR headsets to the face of riders, then sending them on their way. In an instant, park attendees will turn into fighter pilots protecting the planet from alien invasion. On another ride, they’ll fly alongside Superman as he battles his nemesis, Lex Luthor.

The beauty here lies in the plan’s economic efficiency: Rather than build new, better rides, or renovate existing ones to incorporate lush new environments that make the suspension of disbelief a tad bit easier, Six Flags is enhancing what it already does best by syncing virtual reality visuals with its many coasters’ twists and turns, loops and drops. Too often, various brands feel inclined to jump on the latest trend just because it’s there, regardless of how ill-suited the relationship. This isn’t one of those times.

The Virtual Reality Report

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