Drive On
By Douglas King
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 1: (Jan/Feb 2014)

Drive On

The Challenge: Deliver a test-driving experience for a state-of-the-art electric car that is not yet on the streets.

The Solution: Create an interactive and immersive virtual test-driving experience app for tablets and smartphones using the latest in 360-degree filming technology. And, oh yeah, include an exciting story line in which the user is cast as the lead protagonist.

If this sounds like the type of project that might keep you awake at night trying to coordinate production, welcome to the reality of UK-based agency WCRS and production company Mustard/Tool, which were commissioned by BMW "i" Communications Manager Nicola Green to create just such an application. "It was important for us that our marketing activities reflected the innovative nature of the BMW i3," she says. "We really wanted to push the boundaries with this interactive film, to provide users with a truly unique, exciting, and innovative experience, which ultimately would encourage them to test-drive the car."

"The car itself wound up being the inspiration" for making the narrative film, titled "Become Electric," and for using the interactive, 360-degree technology, says Ross Neil, creative director at WCRS.

The vehicle was designed and built from the ground up as an electric car, and the creative team at WCRS - which included Neil, Dan Gorlov, and Rachel LeFeuvre, as well as the director at Mustard/Tool, Jason Zada - decided that it only made sense to create promotions that embraced new technologies.

“BECOME ELECTRIC” is an interactive driving film that puts users behind the wheel of the new BMW i3 electric car.

"'Become Electric' is a step in the evolution of storytelling and brand engagement," says Zada. "It's an interactive film that puts the user in complete control of saving the world. You are at the wheel of the new BMW i3 electric car for almost the entire film, all while being immersed in a big Hollywood-style movie."

To produce the 360-degree portion of the film, the production team at Tool used a camera called the Ladybug, which comprises six different cameras. The images are then stitched together, using proprietary software, to create the 360-

degree spherical image. The software allowed the developers to closely match together the images from the separate cameras to create a seamless image. "Our 360-degree team (TX360) worked very closely with the DP (Luke Scott) and the postproduction company (Glassworks) to create the 360-degree world," notes Tool Producer Nick Papworth.

The Ladybug5 spherical imaging system from Point Grey boasts an impressive 30-megapixel resolution using six 2048x2448 CCDs, covering 90 percent of a full sphere. The system also offers a 5gb/sec USB 3.0 interface.

Actually filming in 360 degrees provided its own set of challenges, as Papworth points out. "Technically, it was a very demanding live-action shoot. In a world where we are giving the user the opportunity to look in any direction at any time, everything has to be managed and timed to perfection so as not to shatter this illusion," he says. "Basic things became challenging, like making sure that our camera team and sound departments could monitor what was going on in the car and making sure that Jason could pass on notes to the actor, all while we were driving around in a convoy through the busy streets of Madrid during the height of summer. It was an interesting and exciting challenge, and one that we all learned a great deal from."

Moreover, because the shoot was taking place on location (driving on the crowded streets of Madrid), playback of performances and trying to set up additional takes "was an intermittent luxury we didn't always have," says Neil.

During production of the film and the application itself, a strong line of communication was essential for the teams, which were working on opposite sides of the planet. With the film crew shooting in Madrid and the app programming occurring at the office of Tool in North America, the groups had to maintain a 24-hour workflow and constant interaction to ensure what was being shot by the live-action team was going to fit the requirements of the app developers.

FILMMAKERS CAPTURED the 360-degree action on the streets of Madrid, while the app programming occurred in North America.

The reason for selecting an interactive app to promote a new car came down to the simple fact that the number of people who have access to smartphones and tablets today has created a marketplace that competes with television. The added benefit of being able to include interactivity - placing the user in an immersive experience - that results in a personalized experience of engagement with the product was an opportunity that simply could not be passed up. "The BMW i3 film and app has been an amazing, forward-thinking, creative project," says Matt Hichens, executive producer at Mustard/Tool. 

"Everything about the implementation of the end-user interface was somewhat theoretical," says Papworth. "Once we had the first build running on our own phones, there was a fantastic level of excitement about what we had all achieved, even before it had become the polished, finished article."

The entire project, from sign-off to delivery of the app into the app stores, took approximately three months.

Everyone involved with the project is pleased with the end results and is happy they took up the challenge of creating this one-of-a-kind, forward-thinking, interactive application.

Complementing the technology that makes up the BMW i3 experience is the use of not only a state-of-the-art 360-degree camera system, but also cutting-edge technology to bring the camera images together into a cohesive, immersive experience for users employing the latest in remote viewing platforms, such as tablets and smartphones. From every standpoint, this is truly an amazing solution to what is sure to become an emerging experience for end users.

Douglas King is a writer and producer based in Dallas. He publishes the blog