Perhaps because of my natural distrust from a lifetime of sci-fi movies, but in all honesty I’ve never had any interest in trying VR. Any activations related to VR I was more than happy to let my fellow Beatniks experience during SDCC, but when a scheduling conflict resulted in AJ Frost having to miss the TMNT Virtual Reality press junket, my curiosity got the better of me and I accepted his offer to attend in his stead. After getting my first real taste of VR, I am now a convert.
Press junkets are nothing new but last weekend during SDCC, Nickelodeon attempted something different from your run-of-the-mill interview. To promote the latest Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, Nick allowed members of the press to interview two of the actual Turtles, Mikey and Donnie voiced respectively by Brandon Mychal Smith and Josh Brener, in a virtual environment resembling a NYC rooftop. Donning a headset and standing in front of a green screen, an avatar of myself with a CGI head based on a classic Nick cartoon character (I chose Invader Zim but selections included Hey Arnold) was projected onto the aforementioned animated rooftop where I conducted a live interview with Smith and Brener who were listening and responding live on the other side of the room behind a curtain as their characters in real time. All the while the actual Turtles’ movements were controlled and animated by someone else in response to the performance of the actors. For those interested and more qualified to understand the technical specifics it’s all below-
The virtual reality experience was developed using Unreal Engine. Creating this experience in a game engine allowed the ability to create real-time interactions and conversations. The experience streams in Mikey and Donnie puppets by using NewTek NDI Technology. NDI allows streaming of large video files over a shared network. The Mikey and Donnie puppets were created and are driven live using Adobe Character Animator. MIDI Keyboards, with mapped animation cycles, are used to trigger the various poses Mikey and Donnie can do. These MIDI Keyboards are puppeted live during the interviews. NDI allows the puppets to be streamed out of Adobe Character Animator, and picked up by various other machines which use these live animations for the experience and compositing.
As someone with a master’s degree in marketing, I was particularly enamored with this unique and one-of-a-kind idea for brand promotion. Obviously, it requires ensuring not only the actors stay on point but have some sort of improvisational training. If you’re familiar with Brener’s work and his hilarious role as Big Head on Silicon Valley, then you know he has the exact comedy and improv chops to make the VR experience come alive. While I wasn’t as familiar with Smith as a performer before SDCC, he definitely has the energy and excitement to bring an authentic level of engagement to a virtual conversation.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see some exhibitors following suit and conduct similar out of the box press junkets utilizing new technologies. Ideally, the VR setup would be opened up to the general public, but due to logistics it makes sense at this time to restrict access to the press and a select few. Here’s hoping more people get to experience what I did during SDCC.
But why read about it when you can actually see it for yourselves! Check it video of my interview with the Heroes in a Half Shell where we discuss pizza, the possibility of a new Christmas album, and you even here my pitiful attempts at beat boxing!