Knowledge at Wharton technology and media editor Kendall Whitehouse recently returned from San Diego Comic-Con, where he explored the landscape for media marketing trends. Several of the largest marketing events at this year’s annual fan fest stepped back from virtual reality in favor of building physical marketing experiences populated with live actors.  

In filmmaking, they’re known as practical effects — physically creating the environments and the actions seen on screen, rather than using computer generated imagery (CGI). After perfecting CGI to realistically render anything imaginable, the trend in Hollywood now shows signs of favoring real-world effects, stunts and environments. The daring road races in Mad Max: Fury Road were largely performed as seen on screen. The stunt coordinator for this summer’s action film Baby Driver stated, “We tried to do everything in camera; 99% was practical,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Christopher Nolan, director of the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Dunkirk, has expressed a preference for in-camera effects over CGI.

This trend toward the actual, rather than the virtual, was also evidence in the high-profile marketing experiences (known as “activations”) at this year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego. While virtual reality and other digital experiences were still in evidence all around Comic-Con, three of this year’s most talked about offsite marketing “experiences” — The Blade Runner 2049 Experience, the Mr. Robot Experience, and the Westworld Experience — depended in whole or in part on physically constructed environments populated by actors rather than computer-generated simulations.

Building the Future: Blade Runner 2049

One of the most elaborate of this year’s marketing activations was the Blade Runner 2049 Experience. Situated inside a large, temporary structure in downtown San Diego, the Blade Runner 2049 installation offered both a virtual reality component and a large-scale physical construction of a street scene of Los Angeles in 2049.

Upon entering the building, you travel down a hallway with production artwork showing the world of the forthcoming film. You’re then seated in a large motion-controlled chair and outfitted with a virtual reality headset and earphones. In the VR simulation, you’re piloting a spinner, one of the flying cars from the film, soaring through the cityscape of future Los Angeles on the trail of a runaway replicant, a synthetic human. Rain runs down the windshield of your spinner as you weave between the skyscrapers. The tactile feedback from your chair heightens the reality of the visual experience. What begins as a pursuit turns into a firefight as you attempt to shoot down the other vehicle. The chase ends as both vehicles crash to the ground, which — courtesy of your motion-controlled chair — is a visceral physical experience.

Police pursue a replicant in the Blade Runner 2049 Experience

At the end of the VR simulation, you remove your headset to discover the wall previously at the front of the room as disappeared, revealing an elaborate reconstruction of a street scene from Los Angeles in 2049. You enter the space though a mist of falling rain (now actual water). Inside, a steam-like fog emanates from vents and a weird snow-like slush can be seen on parts of the ground. Actors portraying citizens in garish futuristic costumes mill about. A noodle chef runs his street-side cafe and chats with customers. Police officers patrol the scene. At one point, an officer directs you to a Voight-Kampff machine — the film’s fictional device that can differentiate between humans and synthetic replicants — to determine whether you’re an android. (Thankfully, I was deemed to be a human.) Someone — a replicant? — darts for a door, chased by police.

“After perfecting CGI to realistically render anything imaginable, the trend in Hollywood now shows signs of favoring real-world effects, stunts and environments.”

Around the borders of the street scene are display cases with props from the film. Adjoining are rooms where you can grab a takeout box of noodles or down a set of vials of Johnnie Walker Scotch.

It was, on multiple levels, an immersive journey into the world of the film.

Hacking the Present: Mr. Robot

Last year’s Mr. Robot marketing activation was a hybrid physical/virtual environment centered on a 13-minute VR simulation viewed after entering a physical reconstruction of the show’s Mr. Robot repair shop and the apartment of its protagonist, Elliot Alderson.

Mr. Robot’s Bank of E and Red Wheelbarrow BBQ.

In an echo of last year’s construction, this year the Mr. Robot repair shop (the entry point of the previous year’s activation) was closed, with condemned notices and graffiti over the exterior of the building. Nearby was a fully working implementation of the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, a location only hinted at in the most recent second season of the show (with the appearance of a cryptic menu) but which, reportedly, will play a larger role in season three. There fans could enjoy pulled pork sandwiches (supplied by Phil’s BBQ) with chips and a shake.

The show’s fictional Bitcoin-like currency was visible throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp district. Fans could open an account at the Bank of E — the financial arm of the show’s mega-conglomerate E Corp — and receive a card loaded with 20 ECoin which could be used to purchase food and other items at numerous shops in the area.

Observant fans, however, were able to discern pointers to clues scattered around locations throughout San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. Once deciphered, the clues provide a phone number which, when called, gives information about a secret location. Upon entering the location, actors playing guards confiscate your cell phone (no photos or recordings are allowed) and lead you down a dimly lit corridor to a room nearly identical to that encountered by Angela (Portia Doubleday) in season 2, episode 11 of the show. As in that episode, in the center of the room is a table with an old Commodore 64 computer along with 5-1/4 inch diskettes. Near the computer sits a red telephone. As also seen in the show, there is an illuminated fish tank in the room.

“This year … a number of marketers focused on exclusivity over reach.”

Unlike Angela, who was interrogated by a young girl (looking much like Angela would have looked at that age), you’re sitting across the table from a masked member of the ominous Dark Army. The masked figure, sitting in near darkness, interrogates you. “How many times have you lied today?” “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” “Are you afraid of the dark?” “What does one in the darkness seek?”

After the interrogation, a red phone rings and you receive a message from a voice identifiable as the mysterious Whiterose from the show. Her message hints at details of what is to come in the upcoming episodes of Mr. Robot. You’re then handed a large manila envelope and told you have 30 seconds in which to view its contents. Inside are photos revealing additional details from the forthcoming third season of the program.

The experience is an eerie journey inside the world of the USA Network series. As exhilarating as it was, it was comforting to finally exit the dark room and return to the San Diego sunlight.

The Future as Past: Westworld

The switch from virtual to physical was also striking in the case of the Westworld Experience. In the preceding year, the HBO sci-fi show had a significant virtual component to its marketing activation that debuted at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco in September 2016 and, as we covered in “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con,” was also on display at New York Comic Con that October. At these events, synthetic human “hosts” (played by actors) greeted you and ushered you into a virtual experience using the HTC Vive VR system. Fans could select whether to wear a white hat or a black hat and then proceeded to the show’s Western setting for target practice — at least until the system appears to glitch and break down.

San Diego Comic-Con offered a similar entry experience, but in this case participants received actual hats — again, either white or black — after being interrogated (shades of the Mr. Robot Experience) by an actor playing the role of a host on the show. After viewing clips from the show — complete with occasional glitches — guests are escorted to a full-scale replica of the program’s Mariposa Saloon, where bartenders dressed in period costume serve drinks (shades of the Blade Runner 2049 Experience) and women interact with the customers at the saloon.

Exclusivity vs. Reach

One advantage of basing these advertising experiences on digital content is the ability to leverage the material beyond the confines of the convention, as evidenced by last year’s Mr. Robot activation. While the blended physical/virtual Mr. Robot Experience was only available in San Diego, the virtual simulation was simulcast to personal VR devices during 2016 Comic-Con in what an NBC/Universal press release described as the “largest-ever co-viewing virtual reality simulcast event.” It was subsequently made available online for on-demand streaming.

This approach thus offered an enhanced experience for fans who traveled to San Diego for Comic-Con last year while also attaining a wide audience reach. As we reported then, this seemed a likely trend to continue.

This year, however, a number of marketers focused on exclusivity over reach.

“A recurring issue with these large scale immersive environments is throughput: The more complex and time-consuming the activity, the fewer the number of fans who can experience it.”

The Westworld Experience was “the most limited offsite known to man,” said Kerry Dixon, editor-in-chief of the popular San Diego Comic-Con Unofficial Blog in a podcast, with only a modicum of hyperbole. It was also, according to Dixon, “The single greatest offsite I’ve ever been to.” The experience — held at a secret location in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter — was reportedly limited to six people each half hour, which means only about 400 of the 135,000-plus fans who descended on San Diego for Comic-Con were able to participate in the experience.

Also at a secret location was the eerie interrogation room at the climax of the Mr. Robot Experience. Because of the elaborate sequence of clues required to gain access to the location, the experience was somewhat gated, although the phone number was reportedly busy for part of the day, frustrating fans who were one step away from the concluding segment.

A recurring issue with these large scale immersive environments is throughput: The more complex and time-consuming the activity, the fewer the number of fans who can experience it. Throughput concerns spurred changes in plans for both the Mr. Robot Experience and the Blade Runner 2049 Experience.

Midway through Comic-Con, the staff at the Blade Runner 2049 Experience made a course correction to allow fans to sign up for either the two-part VR followed by the physical environment or opt to skip the virtual experience in order to allow more people to walk around Los Angeles in 2049.

According to a developer on the Mr. Robot Experience, the design team originally planned to slowly drain the fish tank in the interrogation room, echoing what occurs in the similar scene in the show. But the time to refill the tank between the individual user sessions only allowed for three to four sessions per hour. By not draining the fish tank, the activation’s throughput doubled to between six and eight sessions per hour.

“Until the resolution of VR systems approach that of human perception and their artificial intelligence effectively emulates the interactions of humans, there is a unique value to creating a fictional world with live actors in a physically-constructed environment.”

While exclusivity and the long lines can generate buzz, allowing more than a handful of fans to share their experiences of the event also has value. What happens next year with the marketing activations at Comic-Con may reveal how well this year’s events struck that balance.

Forward into the Past

Just as the return to practical effects in the movies is a throwback to earlier days of filmmaking before computer-generated effects, the physical construction of these marketing activations harkens back to events from Comic-Cons past, such as the Godzilla Encounter in 2013, which reconstructed a Tokyo street scene inside a building in downtown San Diego and the fondly remembered Flynn’s Arcade from Disney’s Tron films at Comic-Con in 2009 and 2010.

It’s unclear whether this retreat from the VR spectacles that dominated Comic-Con marketing experiences in recent years is a permanent trend or a one-year experiment. While virtual experiences created great buzz when they first appeared at Comic-Con, going counter to the current trends can be an effective method for rising above the cacophony of events competing for the audience’s attention at the event. Digital experiences will no doubt continue to play a major role in these high profile, site-specific marketing experiences, particularly given their ability to be leveraged beyond the four days of Comic-Con as home-based entertainment systems become common.

Yet, until the resolution of VR systems approach that of human perception and their artificial intelligence effectively emulates the interactions of humans, there is a unique value to creating a fictional world with live actors in a physically-constructed environment.

As writer and longtime Comic-Con participant Anina Bennett noted, “VR isn’t the holodeck yet,” comparing it to the hyper-realistic simulator in the Star Trek television series. “Until then, you’ve got to build something.”

To see the full sweep of advertising campaigns and marketing experiences at San Diego Comic-Con 2017, see Whitehouse’s Flickr photo album. For a report on all the activities at the year’s Comic-Con, see the blog, On Technology and Media